February 9, 2014
Why Involve Volunteers?
Ask a reasonable question about why volunteers are involved in non-profit organisations and don’t be surprised if the answer is To Save Money! It’s there in writing as well, in comments about budget constraints which ‘increase reliance on volunteer support’, and in ‘saving on administration costs’.
Annual Reports can include acknowledgement of volunteer numbers and hours contributed translated into monetary value, but rarely any analysis or demonstration of why they are valued and important for the organisation.
This money thing really gets in the way of thinking about volunteers and understanding volunteering.
The people who claim ‘volunteers are priceless’ have not looked at the costs of running a volunteer programme. Somebody should be adding up expenditure on recruitment and training, provision of support and supervision, functions for recognition of volunteer work, and reimbursement of expenses. Hang on, why should we reimburse volunteer expenses? Paid employees don’t get reimbursed for travelling to work, nor their parking fees!
When I hear about organisations saving money by using volunteers I am hearing ‘exploitation’. To ‘use’ volunteers is close to ‘abusing’ their goodwill, and their time and their talents.
If the budget shortfall really means increasing volunteer support what extra work will they do? Taking up jobs that used to be paid? That would mean relaxing some of the current rules that limit volunteer roles like a ban on undertaking personal cares for frail and vulnerable people or the constraints of safety boundaries. And let’s not overlook a potential backlash from worker associations.
What is it that so many people need to understand about volunteering?
For starters, ‘volunteering’ is a modern-day term for an ancient human practice that provided mutual support and protection for the collective group, binding people within their communities. These days we call it ‘Civil Society’, denoting all those activities that bring people together to pursue their mutual interests. Volunteering is noted for its diversity and the wide fields of interests, for large national organisations and small informal and local groups. These days, volunteering is a means for community engagement, for maintaining social relations and stability. Volunteering is also the agency to promote a cause, to bring enlightenment and create change.
So when we get down to organisation level, to the place that employs paid staff, what’s the point of volunteering, if it is not to save money? Here are some pointers to finding an answer:
- At a basic level, volunteer assistance will support staff and enable them to focus on specialist responsibilities.
- Volunteers help to create a positive image of the organisation in the community. As ambassadors they can be a real asset, attracting donors and more volunteers, and being the best-ever marketing agents. (Or, as the worst-ever critics, they could be your biggest liability.)
- Volunteers can bring new insights, energy and time to the organisation. It was probably volunteer enthusiasm and commitment that got it started in the first place. So why not harness that energy to develop and trial new strategies or processes, to push the envelope beyond existing limits. The voluntary sector needs a research and development function as much as manufacturing corporations.
- When volunteers bring a diverse range of skills and experience they enrich the organisation, and help expand community connections which can extend the reach of organisation services.
- At best, volunteers offer added value to the organisation’s vision and contribute to achieving its mission.
These are general points, and will need to be tailored to organisation specifics. More importantly, getting to grips with the real reasons for volunteer involvement will mean you never have to say ‘volunteers are priceless’ or that they save you money. And, you’ll find the words and phrases to give real meaning to volunteering.