Do we get paid what we deserve?

In my last article I highlighted the excellent study into job equity for volunteer engagement professionals that was published earlier this year by the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). One of the findings highlighted was that, “Salaries for volunteering staff are lower in most organisations than those of the other posts examined.” Which got me thinking – do volunteer managers get paid what we deserve?

I was partly inspired by this thought provoking article by Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs magazine. Robinson makes many excellent and challenging points. Here’s a section from early on that I think sets the terms of the debate quite well:

”When we examine how our notions of “deservingness” match real-world salaries, it’s obvious that they don’t really correlate at all. People say, for example, that you should be rewarded if you work hard and make sacrifices. In practice, the hardest-working people (such as dishwashers and agricultural laborers) are often paid the least. As for “sacrifice,” we might think that someone who takes a dangerous and unpleasant job should be paid more than the person who takes a cushy and pleasant job. But the list of most dangerous jobs quickly shows us that the jobs most likely to get you killed aren’t very likely to pay you well for it. On the other hand, being a successful Hollywood actor seems like a lot of fun and you get paid a damn fortune. Hard work and risk-taking often go unrewarded, then, even when people are performing incredibly socially useful jobs. We can offer factual explanations for why this occurs (there are a million roofers and one Bryan Cranston), but “supply and demand” is a description of a phenomenon and not a moral theory for why it is just.”

Put simply, how difficult or valuable a job is has no bearing in reality as to how much we get paid. How much sacrifice we make in pursuit of our goals, how creative we are, how innovative we strive to be, none of that relates to the amount in our pay packet. Robinson argues that all those characteristics are of moral, not economic, value, and that these two measures rarely correlate.

Is this part of the cause our frustration? Leaders of volunteers see our work as very valuable to our organisations, but that value is moral in nature and not economic. This is, perhaps, why CEOs spoken to by MAVA said Volunteer Managers need to better demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) of volunteer engagement to increase our value to our organisations. Yet, without getting into a discussion of how we do, could and should measure the value of volunteer contributions, would demonstrating the ROI of volunteering to our employers actually result in us being paid what we feel we deserve?

What would being paid what we deserve look like? If we achieved that, would we continue to feel satisfied over time? Considering some simple metrics, what about if we recruited more volunteers? Would that mean we feel we deserve more? Or if we experienced higher volunteer turnover? Would we feel we deserve less? More importantly, would our employers feel we are worth less and feel justified in paying us less?

Here’s Nathan J. Robinson again:

“Since nobody wants to think they are paid more than they are “worth,” we assume that pay is automatically the measure of worthiness, without examining what the implications of that are or whether that conception of worthiness is coherent and meaningful.”

”…even if we did pay people on the basis of their “value to others,” we are still assuming that economic value is the correct measurement of human value for the purposes of determining living standards.”

Interesting. Are we buying into a concept of valuing things on purely economic terms when we spend so much of our professional lives arguing that money isn’t the best measurement? Think about it: we say the work of volunteers shouldn’t only be valued in economic terms and stress instead the social value of volunteering (wellbeing, health, reduced isolation etc.); and of course we argue that the people who get paid nothing in our organisations should be valued the most. So, if unpaid volunteers should be valued more than paid staff, what authority to do we have to claim that higher pay should be the measure of our status?

I’m not saying there are any easy answers to this. As you can see, I’m posing more questions that I am suggesting solutions. But that’s the point – we need to discuss all of this rather than complaining that we don’t get paid what we deserve.

To me, Volunteer Manager pay is part of a wider discussion about our professional standing. We need to be clear about what we mean when we talk of being a profession, what our end goal is. These are issues I’ve made before – take a look at my 2014 article, “Is our destination clear?”, and it’s follow up, “Unintended Consequences”.

Perhaps the simplest answer to the question of whether we leaders of volunteers get paid what we deserve is the one Nathan J. Robinson concludes his article with:

“I have what I have because I happened to get it, not because there is some cosmic fairness to my getting it.”

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Do we get paid what we deserve?

  1. Rob, thanks so much for continuing the conversation about pay and value for volunteer managers. It’s one of the big reasons why I focus so often on measuring volunteer impact: we need to connect the dots for decision-makers between the organization’s strategic plan and the role volunteers play in creating positive outcomes.

    We also need to do more than wait for others to move the needle. An individual volunteer manager creates change by demonstrating volunteer impact, yes – and also by negotiating for a higher salary (Tobi’s advice is excellent), and by advocating for a spot on the leadership team. It would be great to see our value affirmed from the top-down. That’s most likely to happen when we make shifts from the middle.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The dominant labour market theories probably play a part here, when they are related to the concept of ‘talent’.

    Classical economic theory – “Supply and demand of people, talent and skills” (anyone who is demand is viewed as talent)
    Labour value theory – “The job decides the pay, the market can go away” (no-one is viewed as talent)
    Human capital theory – “We pay for what you bring and who you are” (whoever has ‘it’ is viewed as talent)
    Efficiency wage theory – “Pay a bit of extra to get people with the right stuff doing the right stuff” (key people are viewed as talent)
    Agency theory – “Motivate manager to monitor the right type of performance” (managers are viewed as talent)
    Effort bargain theory – “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” (everyone is viewed as talent)
    Tournament theory – “If you stay in it you can win it. Snooze and you lose” (talent is top cats…and dogs)

    There is some argument that historically volunteer management pay has been set by the public sectors (especially in the NHS) and in the large national charities, where the dominant theory is ‘labour value’, through a job evaluation scheme where the demands on a role and the skills and knowledge required to do the role are considered in comparison with other roles within the organisation. There schemes are designed to protect an organisation against unequal pay claims.
    Therefore if a volunteer leader /manager feel they are underpaid, they can engage with the system to address this.

    In my own experience working in a hospice a similar approach was undertaken. Eventually, when the hospice got to around 150 staff there was pressure to make sure pay for the various roles was perceived to be equitable. An independent consultant from the Industrial Society (now the Work Foundation) was commissioned to undertake a Pay and Reward Review. A steering group was created from a ‘cross-diagonal slice’ from the staff group and a framework was created by this group to measure all the jobs. It used the usual factors such as:
    – Responsibility for people/resources
    – Education/qualifications required
    – Communication (range of stakeholders/complexity of comms)
    – Accountability/autonomy
    – Working conditions

    One this was agreed it was tested with a few jobs and refined. Then all jobs were measured. The one other factor that was brought in was the ‘influence of the job market’.

    The jobs were scored and then given a salary band. Staff were notified and given the opportunity to ask questions or appeal. Overall a reasonable effort was made to develop a pay and reward system that would be perceived to be fair in terms of distributive and procedural justice.

    So on reflection this process was arguably a mix of:
    Labour value theory (no-one is viewed as talent), and
    Classical economic theory (anyone who is demand is viewed as talent).

    For smaller organisations, benchmarking pay is more popular, and some of the other theories may influence here creating more flexibility/spontaneity, and an individual gets paid, as Nathan J. Robinson says, “what they get”(!)

    In these organisations, volunteer leaders/managers want to increase their pay, it could be argued they needs to communicate they are people “with the right stuff doing the right stuff”. But to do this they may well need to stay with an employer for over 3 years…. which poses another problem!


  3. Hi Rob, I think the nature of our profession does create a conflict of (a) wanting to be the yes and helper person and (b) the desire to be paid commensurate with our co-workers who do similar work (but not always in the wide variety that we do). I’m still a little stymied by the CEO response that they need to see the ROI – for many of them, I think they are still equating ‘free’ with ‘volunteers’ and thus has no value. I’m so thankful we have great advocacy tools in VolunteerPro’s Volunteer Management Progress Report and the MAVA study. Don’t be afraid to use them, folks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agree with you Gretchen on the CEO comment. It took some hide – this CEO response. Many CEOs in charity’s would be out the door on their asses if they were ever asked by their boards to demonstrate ROI. Most CEOs are lazy when it comes to volunteers in their orgs.


  4. I agree with Tobi that you get the salary for which you negotiate and that it is important to do that at the time of hire. Had never thought about how a Volunteer Manager position should be on the same salary level as a Development or Marketing Director because it really IS management, not administrative.

    I also think that it is important to include other benefits of the job position as part of the employment “package.” If the job offers great health insurance, paid vacation time, is the # of hours a week you want, an easy commute, includes telecommute options, and/or a generous retirement plan, well, those are factors that can to some degree, offset a salary that is less than you feel “worth.” And really, to me and I am sure others, working where my supervisor supports me and I have respect from staff and peers is important, not just the salary money. I would NOT work for an organization that I dislike, just because the salary is better.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great discussion, Rob. In my own experience working in both private charities and government agencies, merit-based pay was nearly non-existent. Sure, you might get a small raise based on a supervisor’s evaluation of your work, but generally these equated to barely more than a cost of living increase.

    In rare cases, an organization might undertake a full-scale job analysis to address inequities — certainly in union shops this has more of a chance to occur. But, most orgs are reluctant to undertake such a study for fear of triggering a ripple effect across the organization resulting unsustainable labor costs (which may or may not be a rational fear).

    In the end, it’s often up tp the individual. You get paid what you successfully negotiate for, and the single best time to negotiate is when you are offered the job. So, it pays to do your research when you are considering an offer — what are the development director or program directors getting paid? Is the salary range in alignment for the director of volunteer role? You may have to make the case that volunteer coordination is “management” and not merely an “administrative” function in the org. They may not yet see it that way…yet.

    The second best time to negotiate is during the annual review in your current job. Come to the meeting with your results — if you haven’t started tracking your results, start doing it now so you have compelling info to bring to the table. But, don’t rely on your “value” alone. Come with industry comparisons. Merit may not get you there, but good old fashioned social proof might. Compare salaries with your local peers — how do you stack up against organizations with similar annual budgets and staffing sizes?

    Finally, check out the salary charts in our Volunteer Management Progress Report — We slice and dice volunteer manager salary by a number of variables — choose the ones that are most important to your leadership. Others have been able to argue for increased program budgets and salaries — you can, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Why should it matter to Volunteer Managers what the pay is? We do it for the love of it. Most of us are semi retired anyway and its a nice easy job to ease into retirement. Any pay is a bonus. We should remember that our hard working charity Executives work for peanuts too. Six figures for most of them and look at all the hard work they do flying around the place and attending fancy Leadership forums.

    And we forget how easy it is managing volunteers. Mostly we spend our days chatting with them and having cups of tea. It makes sense that most of us are called coordinators rather than managers. What would we know about managing people?

    I do it for the love of My Vollies. And MY Vollies love me for it. Gotta fly now to boil that kettle and sit with them for an hour or 3.


    1. Martin, I respectfully disagree with you. Most of the volunteer managers I’ve come to know are not semi-retired, and I bet Tobi’s study on the profession here in the U.S can vouch for that. Maybe things are different in the U.K., which I think may be where you are given your mention of cups of tea….
      Pay is NOT a bonus, it is a requirement if I am to pay my bills and have a roof over my head. That simple.

      Are you being sarcastic in your second paragraph? I can be pretty gullible, I admit it. Volunteer Coordinators or whatever the title is, the good ones anyway, know a LOT about managing people. This work in many ways parallels that of Human Resources Directors and managers who have many direct reports.


  7. Some really great questions for volunteer managers to think about here. Why do we feel so undervalued?
    Low pay=undervalued?
    Lack of inclusion on senior management team=undervalued?
    Lack of proper title=undervalued?
    Lack of understanding of the skills needed to engage volunteers=undervalued?
    A combination of all=undervalued?
    It’s almost a chicken and egg question-what comes first? More pay or more recognition? And how do we get there?
    So many questions for sure. Thanks Rob, because our first step is to explore these questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great blog, Rob, and some great questions, Meridian. I’d like to add some extra points to the low pay bit, based on comparison. How does pay compare to other similar-sized organisations? And how does pay compare to the rest of the organisation? I think the same points also apply to job title. There really doesn’t seem to be much – if any – consistency.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think it’s relative to the income of the organisation. I find what a volunteer manager gets paid in a big corporate charity is a lot higher than the local hospice. This is not due to the individual, but the money they have to work with, in the first place. We work with people, no economic and therefore if we work harder we won’t make more money, therefore wont get paid more. But then this isn’t why we choose to be a volunteer manager.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s