Since 2019 I have had the honour of serving as Editor-In-Chief of Engage, an online journal written for volunteer engagement leaders around the world who want to be informed and challenged about volunteering trends and issues.
Whilst Engage is a subscription journal, we do publish some free content and, since 2013, I have co-written these Points of View articles, first with the late Susan J Ellis and then more recently with the marvellous Erin Spink.
What follows is the Points of View Erin and I published back in October 2021. It asks questions about the value your organisation places on volunteers compared to other supporters. It is just a relevant now as it was seven months ago.
The global pandemic – along with raised consciousness on diversity, equity and inclusion – has forced many organisations to refocus, change directions and reflect on a range of issues. For example, some are re-evaluating how they serve their community, from both a procedural and ethical lens. Others are tweaking volunteer engagement to make it more accessible online. And still others are undergoing a wholesale review of the place and value of volunteers within their work.
Whatever such rethinking involves and must take into account (which includes fluctuating funding environments for many), new lines are being drawn in the sand around who and what is essential versus who and what is nice-to-have in mission-driven organisations.
When we talk about who and what is essential, we know that for any organization that engages volunteers such discussions can be challenging for leaders of volunteer engagement. When those conversations happen, the relative value of volunteers compared to other stakeholders is often a thorny topic.
Consider: your organization is going through an exercise in prioritising stakeholders (e.g. donors, clients, board members, paid staff, the public, funders, government, etc.) from most to least valuable. Are volunteers on the list? And, if so, where do they sit on this list and why do they sit there?
What seems to be a simple question actually reveals a host of unspoken, hidden assumptions and biases that aren’t discussed nearly enough or with the rigour and critical thinking needed. For many volunteers, their main ‘currency’ of time has been largely put on hold during the pandemic. Instead, we’ve heard a lot of anecdotal stories from peers that the major shift in volunteer engagement strategy was to say to volunteers, “Since you can’t give your time, please give us your money.”
There’s a lot to unpack within the ‘give money instead of time’ mantra. However, the core of it boils down to the perception of value contributed from a particular stakeholder group, in this case, volunteers. In many organisations, money is valued more than time and so financial donors sit above volunteers in the stakeholder pecking order. Clouding the conversation, however, is the historical practice of correlating volunteer time to an hourly currency amount, despite excellent work in evolving the understanding of how we assign value to volunteer time (see articles by Jayne Cravens, Sue Carter Kahl and Meridian Swift on this topic and how to articulate volunteer value).
The seemingly quick switch of many organisations to a ‘give money instead of time’ message to volunteers demonstrates how much farther we need to go in order to change perceptions by key decision makers and influencers on the value of volunteers and why we include them as part of our organisations. To be clear, we’re not saying it is/was wrong to ask volunteers for money during the pandemic or, indeed, at any time. Research has shown that volunteers are often more generous money donors than non-volunteers, if asked in the right way. No, the issue we have is the seemingly automatic distillation that volunteers’ value is the one-dimensional construct of time.
By equating volunteer value to time alone, we discount the many other important contributions that volunteers make and spotlight the fragility of any real change in the broader understanding of volunteer value.
We have been saying for some time now in these Points of View articles that the changes and challenges of the past year have presented great opportunities to move beyond the ‘tried and true’ and seek to effect innovative and lasting change in volunteer engagement. This ‘time vs. money’ issue is another example. Volunteer impact is not one-dimensional. Whether it’s the number of hours or a currency value assigned to that time, these overly simplistic valuations miss the mark. In discussions about stakeholders and the contributions they make, this is dangerous. Because when time is not an option – like during the pandemic – then volunteers fall to the bottom of the stakeholder value ladder.
How does volunteer value measure up in comparison to other stakeholders?
Volunteer contributions can (and should) be considered from multiple dimensions. For stakeholders and organizations, there is ideally an equitable benefit for both parties, as well as costs.
What is unique about volunteers as a stakeholder group is that they can, and often do, receive fewer of the benefits while at the same time more of the costs compared to other stakeholders. For example, have you ever heard of a program or structure being named after a volunteer? Probably not. But we bet you’ve come across something like that named after a cash donor in the past. Regardless of whether a volunteer was instrumental in developing or running a core aspect of your organization’s mission, they rarely get the credit in the way a cash donor might.
In business, some use the “triple bottomline” of people, profit and planet to measure positive and negative impacts. Perhaps the same should be true in our for-impact sector, too – and for all stakeholders.
Volunteer contributions and the involvement of volunteers form a virtuous cycle. Unlike a monetary donation which has a set value, the value of time and heart is unlimited. Due to the nature of their voluntary involvement with your organization, volunteers can advocate and influence a wide sphere with an authenticity unparalleled by other stakeholders, with the exception of participants. We have both seen examples over the years of how volunteers can bring something to an organisation that truly no other category of worker or supporter can bring.
Often volunteers are involved with projects and programs that are deeply embedded in the work of your organization. As a result, it can be argued that they more deeply impact (and are impacted by) the work of your organization. While some volunteer roles are of a more transactional and short-term nature, the ripple effect of the exposure to your mission is far more powerful than the transaction of writing a cheque or making an online donation. Most volunteers – no matter whether their involvement is in-person, episodic or virtual – go through some level of orientation to an organization. This awareness-raising and exposure heightens the emotional and educational aspects of becoming involved with an organization, and impacts a volunteer more than other stakeholders.
Stakeholder Value Education
The pandemic brought into stark relief a continued need for more education, advocacy and compelling evidence of the multiple bottom-lines that volunteers impact, as well as the more intangible qualitative contributions that volunteers uniquely add. This isn’t just about scoring points with colleagues by getting volunteers further up the stakeholder value list; it’s about ensuring that our organisations make the most of a multi-faceted, highly valuable resource without simply dismissing it as less valuable than a one-dimensional financial donation.
To get you started, consider the following:
- What networks do volunteers give your organisation access to that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach?
- What is the ‘opportunity cost’ to the volunteer of giving time to your organisation? What are they giving up to support you? How might this be used to show the value of what they bring to your cause?
- How do volunteers contribute in unique ways from paid staff and other supporters? Do they, for example, bring a lived experience of your cause, or appear to clients as more reliable / committed etc. because they aren’t paid to be there? How does that help progress your mission through volunteer engagement?
We’d love to hear what you are already doing on this issue, how you get on if you’re just starting and what you think more broadly of the position we’ve taken in this Points of View.
Please leave us a comment and let’s get the conversation started.