Volunteer work is not worth a dime

Even when nonprofit organizations publish their financial records (such as the mediawiki foundation), the work done by volunteers has an estimated financial value of zero. These organizations will however unanimously claim that volunteers are an essential part of society and have a very special place in their heart. While most of them are sincere, observation tells us a different story:

  • In the context of fundraising, volunteers are second class citizens compared to organizations who donate money
  • A lack of transparency excludes volunteers from decisions and day to day work

How is it that one year of a volunteer who is worth $60,000 on the market is considered less valuable than a $60,000 grant used to pay the salary of the same person?

In my many years as a volunteer, I never came across an organization that is so well organized that paid staff is relaxed, has plenty of time to do their job properly and never complains about being overloaded. They are constantly looking for more people to accomplish their mission, either volunteers or paid staff. But when they spend ten days working on fundraising for paid staff, they will only spend one day looking for volunteers and caring for them even when they are worth the exact same amount of money, i.e. all things otherwise equal, fundraising benefits from a level of attention that is at least an order of magnitude greater than volunteers. Of course this is a subjective opinion, an educated guess based on my own experience only. But I suspect that if you look at the nonprofit organizations that you know in this light, you will find clues that corroborate this hypothesis.

Transparency is, by far, the quality that attracts me the most in an organization. When I can see how decisions are discussed, how the work is done by paid staff on a daily basis, I can figure out how to contribute as a volunteer. I can also see for myself if the work of other volunteers had a positive impact, how it was received. Last but not least, by reading the discussions I can see if the culture is a good fit for me: I want to feel that I can connect with the people before committing to do volunteer work. From the point of view of the paid staff, transparency enables volunteers with no extra work from them. By contrast an opaque organization requires significant work from paid staff to welcome volunteer: they have to invite them explicitly to discussion groups, they must grant them access to the necessary documents, they must explain to each of them how decisions were made. In other words, I think there is a relationship between transparency and how much an organization values volunteers: when an organization made the effort to be transparent about its decision process and its day to day work, volunteers can safely assume they will be welcome. Despite these benefits, day to day transparency is extremely rare and is most of the time limited to the publication of an annual report.

I can only speculate as to why most nonprofit organizations are opaque and value volunteers less than grants. But I can suggest a simple way to change this status quo, based on how the french IRS account for volunteer work. The idea is simple and yet unique to France: every hour of volunteer work is declared to have a value (for instance $30) and the nonprofit is allowed to include the total in their annual financial report. There is even a software for volunteers to declare how much they worked and nonprofit such as Framasoft or April include it in their annual report.

They are still the exception though, primarily because there is absolutely no tax advantage in doing so: it is merely a statement. Nonprofit organizations around the world could do the same, informally, despite the lack of incentive from the IRS. By doing so:

  • The time spent recruiting volunteers and caring for them would have the same importance as the time spent fundraising for the same amount of money
  • Loosing a full time volunteer worth $50,000 would raise the same concerns as loosing a $50,000 grant
  • Increasing volunteer work by $50,000 would be considered as successful as winning a $50,000 grant

Last but not least, this is where transparency matters the most: it makes it very difficult to claim 100 hours of volunteer work, unless there is abundant evidence of actual work publicly available. The indisputable measure of success of fundraising is money in the bank. The indisputable measure of success of a healthy volunteer community is publicly auditable evidence of their hard work.