National Volunteer Week and the Value of Volunteers

This week is always a busy one for me because it is National Volunteer Week.  It is a week to talk about volunteers and to celebrate all that volunteers do for our programs.

trail work on Pima Wash Trail

Trail work with VOAZ on the Pima Wash Trail in South Mountain Park

Recently, my own volunteer efforts were celebrated, along with hundreds of other volunteers at the annual Volunteer Venture for Arizona State Parks.  During the opening speech by the interim Director of Arizona State Parks, he referenced the dollar value of volunteer time and gave an overall figure of how much the volunteers were worth to the organization.  It was of course a huge number of dollars and he stated how the volunteers were so valuable because without them they would never be able to get everything done; they would never be able to get that kind of money.

Riordan Mansion volunteer potluck

Riordan Mansion volunteers and staff gather regularly for potlucks, enjoying each other's company and sharing ideas for how to keep Riordan open

So here is where putting a dollar figure on volunteer time falls apart.  Almost any time I have heard a speech about the value of volunteers, the organization’s leader giving the speech references that dollar value and then almost always talks about how they could not afford to pay staff to do what volunteers do.  I think this misses the point about the value of volunteers.  Volunteers do not just give time and manpower, but they bring their unique talents and connections.

Here are some examples to illustrate my point:

  1. I met a volunteer who served at the local charity thrift shop.  She was put in charge of intake and pricing for new pieces of jewelry that were donated.  She had been recruited for that role because she had some specific knowledge of appraising and could separate the cheap costume jewelry from the expensive stuff so that it could all be priced accordingly and make more money for the thrift shop.  After taking the position however, she came up with a new idea.  The price of gold had been going up and up and some of the jewelry pieces would be worth more if they could be held onto and the scrapped to a gold seller instead of sold at the shop.  She was able to find a lucrative new way for the charity to make money from their donated items.  Her volunteer time was worth more to the organization because she was able to use her talent and was given responsibility.
  2. My mom volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House answering phones and giving tours and generally helping out around the house.  This is a standard position and they could hire someone to do it if they had the money. What they couldn’t hire is my mom’s network and the connections of the volunteers to one another.  Whenever there is something special needed for the house, my mom knows who to call.  Need the bushes trimmed?  Call my dad.  Need the new quiet room painted?  She calls her sister’s ex-husband who is a professional house painter.  In addition, the volunteers take care of each other.  My mom carpools with another volunteer and they all check in with each other on shift change to see how everyone is doing.  Sometimes they even arrange vacation coverage for each other on their own.  My mom was “hired” for her position because she has excellent customer service skills, but because she is passionate about the mission of the Ronald McDonald House, she brings her entire network with her, an enormous value to the organization.
  3. As regular readers know, I give tours at Riordan Mansion State Historic Park.  This is a situation where volunteers do the same thing that paid staff members do.  So hypothetically, if the park ever had a surplus of money they could hire staff to do what volunteers do now.  However, one thing we all love to tell visitors is that they should come back and go on the tour again, because we have at least 30 different tour guides (3 paid and the rest are volunteers) and every person tells a different story about the house and the family that lived there.  This diversity is a true asset to the park and one that they wouldn’t be able to replicate without their passionate diverse volunteer workforce.
Tewksbury/Blooms at Ronald McDonald House

Mom, sister (Nora), and Sharon at Ronald McDonald House at Christmas

As I have explained to many volunteer managers, human resources in a volunteer-based organization is backwards from a factory.  In a factory you want to increase efficiency by getting the greatest possible output out of the smallest possible number of staff.  In a volunteer-based organization, since every involved volunteer represents a potential wealth of experience, talent, connections, and passion, you actually want to figure out how to have the most volunteer staff possible.  If you have a task that needs to get done, think about whether it can be broken down or expanded to create two volunteer opportunities instead of one.  Too many volunteers working on tasks without supervision?  Look for a volunteer with the talent and drive to become a volunteer leader!
volunteer at az sonoran desert museum

A volunteer interpreter at the AZ Sonoran Desert Museum

These examples don’t even get into the fact that volunteerism is not only a boon to non-profit and government organizations, but is also of great value to the volunteers themselves.  Excellent volunteer opportunities are always a win-win-win.  The organization wins, the volunteer wins, and the community or cause wins!  So don’t shortchange the experience when talking about the value of volunteers.  Volunteers may be measured on a budget line at $21.79 / hour, but their contributions are truly priceless.
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One response to “National Volunteer Week and the Value of Volunteers

  1. Nicely said and so true!
    ~Gwen

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