What is the Value of a Volunteer?

12 Apr

Each year Independent Sector posts the National Value of Volunteer Time. This year the 2012 estimate is $22.14 an hour. They also include a breakout of an estimated value for each state.

As we approach the start of National Volunteer Week on April 21 it is a great time to reflect on the true value of Volunteer Time.

Some individuals, example Board Members or committee or program chairs/managers bring a very high level of knowledge, skills, and expertise to the nonprofit, hospital, college, school or even corporate volunteer program. As I used to say at the American Red Cross we can’t afford to hire/pay senior executives at Fortune 500 companies, however we were able to ask and hire many such executives as volunteers.

Some individuals bring a unique vitality and energy to the organization. A few examples…

• Betsy was an amazing trainer, she lit up the room with her smile and instantly had her audience nodding yes, yes, and yes… we can do this as volunteers. Behind the scenes though she was even more impressive serving as chair for working groups, leading focal groups, providing volunteer capacity building advice, leading teams in designing nationwide volunteer engagement tools, resources and guidance to support strategic engagement of up to 1 million annually. Now I could try to estimate the replacement value of 1 million volunteers, but how would I estimate the true value to the organization of one hour of Betsy’s time?

• Bunny serves as the welcome desk greeter at her church every Sunday. She starts her duties an hour and half before anyone else arrives she water’s the plants in the entry room to the church. She puts out supplies, the guest book, the three versions of name tags for guests, for members, and then for the children. She usually gets up to do about 10 small other tasks as people start to arrive 45 minutes to 15 minutes before the service starts. An older member who has missed church for a few weeks needs her donation envelopes from the lost and found; the Easter Banner needs to be put away. She gets oral reports from her two colleagues on the Evangelism Committee, and is still ready and willing to give a very warm welcome to current members, their families, guests, and especially the children who smile when they see her and wait in line to carefully write their names on the name badges. She reminds others on the greeting team regarding special announcements. I could calculate the replacement value of Bunny but how would I estimate the social capital and goodwill that her warm welcome provides to her church.

• Chase led an Eagle Scout project creating a large landscaped meditation garden at his church. As a 13 year old, this was a huge project, but he brought together and mobilized the help of a couple of professional landscapers and perhaps 25 other adult, church and Scout volunteers, friends and family to work on the project that he researched, talking to the landscapers, arranged for most of the materials to be donated, all of the time to be donated for 6 or 7 hours on a busy weekend, when most had plenty of other activities – work or leisure time that they could have been doing otherwise. He developed the design, the work plan, broke out the tasks, arranged for transportation of the materials, sourced the tools and gloves needed, arranged for refreshments, the photographer and supervised and let the entire project from start to finish. Local newspapers even came to write a story. We could calculate the replacement value for this volunteer led effort by a 13 year old and what the Landscaping firm would have charged for a similar project, but how do you estimate the Lifetime Value of an Eagle Scout project to Chase and the other young people who engaged in this project, several of who will one day think of doing their own Eagle Scout project? What is the value of the lessons he learned about project planning and execution, negotiating with the church council, the landscaping company, learning how to recruit, mobilize and lead volunteers?

In each case, we can plug in the numbers and calculate the replacement cost of the volunteers as trainers, managers, project leaders, for staffing a church welcome table with volunteers. However, the true value of these volunteers, the social capital they bring to their organizations, and the inspirational examples they provide yield a much higher “Return on Investment” (ROI) than what we could pay using the conventional calculation.

I am very grateful to the 10s of thousands of volunteers I have worked with. I wish each of them a sincere thank you. Have a great National Volunteer Week.

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