October 24, 2010
For years I’ve been trying to figure how to measure volunteer inputs and translate these into outcomes for the organisation, instead of saying “we couldn’t manage without you”.
A 5-year census survey can capture data on New Zealand’s volunteer population. Numbers and hours per week of volunteering can be turned into a $$ figure to illustrate the value of volunteering to the domestic economy. Annual Reports for many an organisation offer a gloss on numbers of volunteers, perhaps some recognition of length of service, and appreciative acknowledgement for their contribution. Managers of volunteers can put a lot of energy into monthly reports on volunteer hours, travel distances, and in maintaining a database to record volunteer activities.
But all these measures are simply recording inputs and outputs, a quantitative summary of achievements. There is nothing here that will tell me about volunteers making a difference, how they contribute to achieving organisational goals. Which is something of great interest to donors and funders, especially when the organisation is contracted to provide specific community and social services.
Volunteers are not cans of peas rolling off a production line. Volunteers (and their leaders) and what they do is much more about the qualitative difference they make to an organisation.
So it was really good to hear from Drs Karen Smith and Carolyn Cordery (Victoria University, authors of Management Matters) describing at a recent Volunteer Wellington forum how we might improve our capacity to measure outcomes.
First up, I needed to figure which line to follow “Volunteers are priceless”, or “Volunteers do not come for free”. In the latter case I can add up actual costs of running a volunteer programme, from overheads to training to police checks, and work up a balance sheet against volunteer time and travel inputs. A straightforward cost / benefit analysis. But if I overlook the ‘priceless’ contribution I am (1) discounting the quality of people who volunteer and the intrinsic value of their work, and (2) ignoring how much impact volunteers can have on achieving organisational goals.
The second key question is ‘Are volunteers substitutes/replacements for paid staff?’ This question is an absolute no-no in volunteering philosophy, but let us confront some reality tests. If volunteers are substitutes or replacements, how would you reckon their rates of pay? What are the benchmark positions for the jobs done by volunteers? What is the opportunity cost for a medical doctor to be serving cups of tea, or for the lawyer doing the photo-copying in the basement, even if that is his/her preferred role. How about the volunteer board member who brings mana and expertise to the organisation, for free? Alternatively, how would you put a price on the ‘unqualified’ volunteer who offers (after training) expert advice and information, skilled listening and personal support, advocacy, team leadership, event management, etc, etc……..
All of these questions and examples are leading to consideration of ‘added value’. Engaging volunteers is not about substituting or replacing paid staff. Engaging volunteers means an organisation has some extra resources, the means to turn their vision into a reality. Engaging volunteers is about enhancing services, pushing boundaries, making a difference.
Measuring that difference is the problem. The researchers suggested we could arrive at a net benefit by evaluating volunteer services on key performance indicators (KPIs). The model they demonstrated looks very promising – as long as we can get the KPIs reflecting what volunteers do in relation to our organisation’s mission.
It’s worth a try I reckon, to see if we can really measure outcomes of volunteer services. And, if you need reminding, you do not accomplish anything like this without an accomplished manager of volunteers.
PS: A really good article on measuring Return on Investment (ROI) relating to volunteering is now available in the latest edition of e-volunteerism. Calculating the ROI of your Volunteer Programme: It’s Time to Turn Things Upside Down, by Tony Goodrow. Go find it at http://www.e-volunteerism.com