July 18, 2010

Valuing Volunteers

Posted in Valuing Volunteers at 2:32 am by Sue Hine

Every year during Volunteer Awareness Week, and around International Volunteers’ Day I hear this litany:

Thank you to ‘our’ volunteers – You do a wonderful job – We could not manage without you.

Or variations on these themes.  And all through the year there will be rites of recognition for the work of volunteers, from certificates of service, to special functions, to letters and cards, and of course the regular utterance ‘thank you’.

Managers of Volunteers understand well the value of volunteers.  But I think the message needs to be spread around.

‘Value’ is a word that carries a lot of baggage and several different meanings.  When it comes to volunteers you can find meanings that relate to economic, political, social and cultural beliefs.

  • The economics of Volunteering are reported by Statistics NZ: volunteering contributes 4.9% to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  That is pretty significant, considering 4.9% is equal to the building industry and more than tourism (4.6%).
  • Politically, volunteering is favoured by governments around the world as a way to provide social services in cash-strapped economies, under the rubrics of Civil Society, Community Development and all those nice sounding words.  New Zealand’s Government is currently consulting on a ‘relationship agreement’ between government and the community sector.
  • There are lots of social and cultural reasons to volunteer.  Have a look at motivation research at www.sparc.govt.nz, or get a copy of Mahi Aroha: Maori Perspectives on Volunteering and Cultural Obligations to gain an understanding of a Maori perspective (available via www.ocvs.govt.nz.) 

Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

 Why do you engage volunteers in your organisation?

[You are absolutely not allowed to say “to save money”]

Think carefully:

  • What do volunteers bring?
  • What do they give?
  • What are the gains for your organisation?

 You could go round other people in your organisation and ask the same questions.  What sort of answers do you get?

 If people cannot answer the questions, or if they are just wondering why you need to ask, that should signal a need to do some marketing of the volunteer programme and some solid advocacy on behalf of volunteers.  Or get volunteers to talk to staff about why they volunteer. 

The whole point of engaging volunteers is a heck of a lot bigger than saving money.



  1. Ken Burns said,

    Engaging volunteers is more about social cohesion and improving peoples confidence to see how transferable their work skills are than it is about saving money


  2. Sue Hine said,

    Thank you Ken for your observations – which is why I asked the question. I am really keen for organisations – the Boards, the managers and staff – to understand the role volunteers can play, one that should be written into strategic and operational plans, and certainly into a policy. Making sure all this happens is a big task for managers of volunteers.


  3. Becci said,

    It feels like we have to change our language when we speak to government/funders, as if the only language they understand is talking in terms of monetary value. Haven’t been in the voluntary sector long in Tasmania, but in England it seemed every volunteering program was tied to unemployment or further education. Young people were even paid substantial expenses (far more than normally needed to cover lunch and the bus trip) – what happened to volunteering because people genuinely want to help – is it really true that volunteering has shifted away from altruistic motivations? I’m supposedly ‘generation Y’, but I find some of the stereotypical presumptions about motivations insulting!


    • Sue Hine said,

      I share some of your concerns Becci, particuarly when I read today’s post from http://www.i-volunteer.org.uk/newshound/national-citizen-service-launched-today/ on compulsory ‘volunteer’ service for 16 year olds. You will note the contradiction of terms. I think altruism is still alive and well, but our sector now has to accommodate corporate volunteering, job seekers wanting work experience, and engaging people referred via courts for working out their community sentence. Some managers of volunteers do not count these variations as volunteering and therefore do not take responsibility for them. My view is that regardless of how they connect with an organisation, they are contributing to our services free of charge. (The business of ‘free will’ is a philosophic debate that will never come up with a definitive answer.) There are positive outcomes: (1) they get to know more about the organisation and the services offered, and why; (2) the organisation benefits from extra hands and widened support networks in the community; and (3) it might just happen that a bit of altruism gets under their skin and they learn to take up volunteering in the true spirit of the word.


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