January 30, 2011

Sticks and Carrots

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice, Yes but at 7:15 am by Sue Hine

This week I have been reading a flurry of posts on cyberspace on charging fees for volunteers to be trained and engaged in organisations. 

Hooo-eee!  I am coming close up and personal with some concepts of volunteering that challenge everything I thought were important.

I am asking questions, like is a fee-paying volunteer a ‘true volunteer’?  What is ‘True Volunteering’?  Well – that’s a bit redundant, because we know in this day and age how volunteers come in all shapes and sizes, and from several different directions. When I reviewed definitions of volunteering late last year there was never a mention of charging for the privilege of giving time, skills and interest in a community organisation.  It cuts across all the accepted principles of being a volunteer, and I am a staunch NIMBY on this one.   

Why would you want or need to make volunteering yet another user-pays activity? 

This sort of stick appears to be concerned with retention of volunteers relative to the cost of recruitment: a monetary outlay can be an incentive to last the distance of a required commitment. 

Another argument rests on the significance of a particular training programme, and the benefit to the volunteer’s personal and professional development.   Like the skills gained in specialist health and social services, for example.   Well maybe that’s OK if there is a recognised qualification at the end of the programme, and there are not too many agencies that have reached accreditation status yet. 

My major objection is that any compulsory fee for volunteering discriminates against low-income people, and thus limits their ability to be an active citizen contributing to community well-being.  Such exclusion is also limiting for the organisation, narrowing the breadth and depth of experience and vitality it can offer. 

Of course, volunteering has never been cost-free, for either the organisation or the volunteer.   Many a volunteer is heard to say “I can’t afford to donate money, but I can give my time”.  And the value of their time, and their travel costs, and other incidentals.  Others find it too easy to write a cheque and prefer the challenge of real volunteer work.

So if I don’t like the sticks of fee-paying volunteers what are the carrots that will keep them coming and meeting the programme standards?

Good Management! 

It’s all that best practice recruitment stuff: getting appropriate information on the application form; plenty of information about the organisation and the volunteer programme, including expectations; a screening and orientation process that helps the manager and the would-be volunteer see if they have got a good match.   

It’s also that leadership, support, and communication stuff that keeps volunteers in touch with the organisation and on track in their work, making sure they know they are valued and appreciated.  Add in annual reviews, satisfaction surveys and exit interviews and you are going to get such a good return on your investment you won’t need to think about fee-paying volunteers.

Well – we know the real world is not always like that.  Volunteers come and go for all sorts of legitimate reasons.  It does not mean they are lost to volunteering forever.  If they have been exposed to a good experience they can also be the best possible ambassadors for the organisation within their local communities.

That’s what good management and great leadership of volunteers can do. There is no justification in requiring volunteers to pay for their services.



  1. DJ Cronin said,

    Hi Sue
    I think I have been part of that flurry of posts. “I am asking questions, like is a fee-paying volunteer a ‘true volunteer’ And while I respect your choice to be a NIMBY on this I respectfully disagree with you. I think the whole definition of what is a “true “volunteer is becoming tiresome and boring. I am sure that some out there agree. It’s becoming like a cause célèbre of volunteer management and consultants but quite frankly the volunteers themselves probably don’t give a hoot.
    I am a former Telephone counselor with Lifeline in Australia. Lifeline charges a fee for their training course. I see no issue with paying for training for volunteering …in certain cases. I became an accredited telephone counselor for Lifeline after volunteering on the phones for 5 years. The Lifeline telephone counseling training course is well known and thought of nationally. But people pay for the privilege.. I imagine one pays to get some of the best trainers and resources. Many years ago when I was volunteering for lifeline in another area my access to the course was heavily discounted because I was an existing volunteer who had put in some time. But I tell you now, that I would gladly have paid for the communication and listening skills it gave me that would stand me in good stead for years to come. Not to mention the most amazing five year volunteering experience. I have been thinking for some time to re engage and volunteer once again as a crisis telephone volunteer. I will have no issue with paying for that privilege.
    I understand the difficulty when “volunteer” and “paying for” meet each other in the same paragraph. Yet here’s the crux of our dilemma. As a Volunteer management sector we often state that volunteers don’t come for free. Yet we have issues now with volunteers paying for training? We can’t have it both ways. I suspect there are those who have an issue with consultants who make a living out of providing training in volunteer management. Some people may see it as making money on the “backs of volunteers”. Ludicrous but I’ve heard it said! And certain quarters have some problems in seeing a private sector providing that type of training I imagine.
    To conclude I want to say that I believe Dogma and volunteering simply find it difficult to coexist. Volunteering is a choice and will never be curtailed, solidly defined or pigeon holed.


  2. Sue Hine said,

    Thanks for putting the other side of the debate DJ, and I hope there will be others sharing their views.

    Please note I am not dogmatic about ‘true volunteering’ – as I said in the blog, it is a redundant term. Volunteers for free, or fee-paying volunteers? Your comment that we can’t have it both ways is the dilemma. It is a bit of a cop-out to suggest charging a fee could be OK for some organisations and not for others. In the meantime I will stick by my arguments for barrier-free volunteering and promoting good management.


  3. Claire Teal said,

    Hi Sue

    I think you raise some really valid points that deserve to be thought about by any volunteer-involving organisation.

    When I was playing my part in the cyber-discussions on this topic, they initially centred on an issue I felt was more to do with an inflexible volunteer programme whose manager was contemplating charging prospective volunteers to train in an effort to, for want of a better word, bond them to it, than on charging volunteers to train per se. While I stated then and I’ll restate now that I don’t have a problem with volunteers paying a membership fee to belong to organisations they also volunteer for, I do have a problem with it potentially becoming ‘the done thing’ to charge for training programmes.

    DJ – volunteers DON’T come for free, I agree with you. But charging them to give our organisation the privilege of having them work (for free) for us seems bizarre. To me, this creates an elitism in volunteering that quite frankly goes against everything I believe our sector stands for – inclusion, empowerment, equality…need I list more? How many potential student volunteers would we lose because they a) can’t afford our training fees, and b) can’t commit to the required length of time we expect them to stay for on collecting this fee? How many rehabilitating former prisoners on the benefit would lose out on the perfect volunteering opportunity because it’s buying the bread or training to volunteer? In volunteering, we have a priceless opportunity on MANY levels. Now, I’m not saying here that it is blanket-wrong to ever charge for training on a volunteer programme. I just think we need to think very, very carefully about the precedent we may just set by not asking some big questions about this.


  4. DJ Cronin said,

    Interesting points Claire and Sue. I stand by a proud track record of removing barriers to volunteering. In my years of managing volunteer programs I have come across several – many barriers that I encourage organisations and colleagues to dismantle if they can. And unfortunately I’ve come across many unwritten barriers and sometimes these are the scariest.

    Reluctance to take on unemployed people…in case they up and get a job!
    Reluctance to take on students…can be trusted and unreliable!
    Not taking volunteers on unless they can commit for 6 months to a year.

    All beliefs greedily feeding stereotypes. And I challenged them all.

    I haven’t been volunteering as a counselor for Lifeline for awhile now and certainly don’t speak on their behalf. But I must point out that it was my understanding that they got many many applicants from students. Normally students studying psychology, counseling etc. And in many case I heard it was the uni lecturers recommending that they do this course.

    Sue, I don’t believe that It is a bit of a cop-out to suggest charging a fee ( for certain training I might add) could be OK for some organisations and not for others.

    Rather I subscribe to Clare’s view when she states “Now, I’m not saying here that it is blanket-wrong to ever charge for training on a volunteer programme” and I agree with Clare on the “need to think very, very carefully about the precedent we may just set by not asking some big questions about this.”

    To Claires statement “But charging them to give our organisation the privilege of having them work (for free) for us seems bizarre.” But Claire – it’s a fee for a certain type of training. The distinction must be made. I know you say tomato and I….

    Sue – I will stick by my arguments for open mindness, looking at issues on a case to case basis, examining the grey areas and naturally promoting good management. :- )

    In conclusion I quote some lines from Lifelines Gold Coasts page on telephone counseling training

    What does the training involve?

    Stage 1 and 2 of the training course runs for 10 – 14 weeks including one full weekend for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training and a full day covering Family Violence
    The training course is designed to develop self-awareness and interpersonal skills and to teach effective communication and counselling. There is a strong emphasis on developing skills through participation in practical activities such as role-plays and group work.

    Stage 1:
    Minimum 67 hours (10 weeks)
    Group training covering 13 modules including a two day ASIST Living Works suicide intervention training workshop, skills training and practice, e-module learning and workbooks. Modules include detailed issues such as relationships, child protection, loss and grief, addiction, mental health and domestic and family violence. Attendance at all training sessions is compulsory.

    Stage 2:
    Minimum 16 hours (4 weeks)
    Student placement including four supervised telephone shifts
    Stage 3:
    92 logged in phone hours (Approximately 6 hours per fortnight over a 12 month period)
    Invitation to attend this probationary telephone counselling stage. Also included in this stage is ongoing training and mandatory attendance at group supervisions and workshops.

    At the end of this stage you can apply for CHC42208 Certificate IV in Telephone Counselling Skills if you choose.

    Stage 4:
    An invitation to become an accredited Telephone Counsellor !
    What are the training options and costs?
    To become a Telephone Counsellor, Lifeline offers a specially developed training course across Australia at Lifeline centres.

    As a Registered Training Organisation we differ from many other volunteer organisations.
    As an RTO, and part of the Australian Quality Training Framework AQTF, we provide quality training and assessment services and skills that are nationally recognised qualifications.

    To offer this professional training, we have to charge our volunteers for the standard of training required. However, RTO subjects are transferrable and can be recognised for prior learning as credit in other courses.

    Additionally the TC course is recognised as a wonderful experience and provides skilling for the job market.



  5. Sue Hine said,

    This topic sure is getting us to clarify ideas and implications. Thanks DJ for the info on Lifeline training, a very different kettle of fish from charging a fee for basic induction and specific skill training where no formal qualification is offered. I would expect to pay a fee where the organisation is an accredited training provider, offering nationally recognised qualifications. Such organisations would be a very small percentage of the total NGO / community organisation sector.


  6. Sue Kobar said,

    Interesting email debate Sue and pleased it has gone to your blog.

    I think it is hard to compare volunteering in the USA with other countries; especially NZ. The US is far more formalised in health requirements, welfare to work programs, training requirements, competency & all that legal stuff that holds us accountable for not taking care of the volunteer & organisation.

    In Hawaii the govt brought in a required 4 hours a month volunteering to be completed before welfare recipients could receive their monthly cheque. We didn’t agree and provided legislative testimony against it. They won and have had a problem getting agencies to accept someone for 4 hours a month ever since. It may have changed by now but I was in health care and the training involved for some exceeded the required 4 hours the first month and then we didn’t hear from the person until the next cheque was due. Some may say our screening should have opted out some people but most applicants met our intake criteria. I wonder if they had paid a small fee for the training if they would have shown up. Incentive – possibly.

    When serving as a board member I was required to make an annual donation. Is this a charge (fee) for serving on the board?

    I don’t really have a problem with a fee being assessed to volunteer as long as it is fair – – and that’s probably where the challenge lays. Given the intense training & education some organisations provide to their volunteers it does seem reasonable they may assess a fee.

    I consider anyone that I don’t pay as a volunteer which includes: community service, corporate employees who volunteer on behalf of their employer, school credit, community sentence, etc. This debate I have had with a number of people in NZ who consider any person who receives compensation is not a “true’ volunteer. I don’t like this who is a “true” volunteer and who isn’t – not a productive route to go. All volunteers receive something in return otherwise they wouldn’t continue to be of service to the organisation. Yes, some is the intangible stuff like a feeling of self worth & increased confidence. Other is the opportunity to receive training that will lead to employment opportunities & career development and I am all for that. If a small fee has to be assessed to help this happen – okay by me.

    Sue K.


  7. Sue Hine said,

    I guess there is no last word on this issue, but really good to have it aired and to learn different ways of looking at it.


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