I’ve been trying to follow the Global Volunteering Conference in Budapest (one of my favorite cities) from afar. It’s co-hosted by the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and it has “gathered leaders from governments, UN agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs) and other international organizations to discuss ‘Volunteering for a Sustainable Future.'”
I recently read this statement by UN Volunteers Programme Executive Coordinator Flavia Pansieri, and I cringed. It’s a call to value volunteers based on the money value of the hours they contribute.
Yes, you read that right. The measurement so many of us have been campaigning to end – or at least not make the primary measurement of the value of volunteering – is being officially embraced by UNV and IFRC.
As you will see from the UNV statement, the conference is touting that the value of volunteering across just 37 countries amounted to at least $400 billion and celebrates a new manual by the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies which aims to help statisticians and economists measure the value of volunteer work at the national, regional and global levels by tracking the amount, type and value of such work in their countries. The manual is a strategic plan to try to measure how many people are volunteering and to value their time based on industry/professional classifications were they being paid.
I’m all for the value of volunteering coming to the increased attention by policymakers. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and probably a lot more): Involving volunteers because of a belief that they are cheaper than paying staff is an old-fashioned idea that’s time should long-be-gone. It’s an idea that makes those who are unemployed outraged, and that justifies labor union objections to volunteer engagement. These statements, and others that equate volunteers with money saved, have dire consequences, which I’ve outlined here.
How to talk about the value of volunteers? Instead of looking for the money value of the hours contributed, UNV and IFRC and other players could look at:
- Do communities that increase volunteering rates lower unemployment, or have more resilience in dire economic times? The National Conference on Citizenship (in the USA) did a study that found such. Couldn’t ILO do the same?
- Do increased levels of volunteer engagement lead to less violence in a community?
- Do high levels of volunteer engagement lead to healthier, more sustainable NGOs and civil society?
- Do high levels of volunteer engagement lead to more voters, more awareness of what is happening in a community or more awareness of how community decisions are made?
- Do high levels of local volunteer engagement relate to successfully addressing any of the Millennium Development Goals?
- Does increased volunteer engagement by women contribute to increased women’s empowerment?
- Does volunteer engagement by youth contribute to youth’s education levels or safety?
What an important, powerful study that would be! THAT would be a wonderful measurement of the value of volunteers that could help volunteers, the organizations that involve such, and the funders that finance the involvement of volunteers (because, ofcouse, we all know that volunteers are never free, right?)!
But, instead, as a result of UNV, IFRC, ILO and all of the other organizations touting the volunteer-value-based-on-dollar-value:
- Governments can be justified in saying, “Let’s cut funding for such-and-such programs that the community relies on and, instead, get some volunteers to do it, because volunteers are free labor – they save money!”
- Corporations can be justified in saying, “We’re cutting our philanthropic programs because these nonprofits should just find some people to do the work and not be paid for it! That will save money. And nonprofits can, instead, create a half day for our staff to come onsite and have a feel-good volunteering experience – it won’t be any extra work for the nonprofits because, you know, volunteers are unpaid, and that makes them free!”
- Unions can be justified in saying, “We are against volunteering. Because volunteers take paid jobs away.” That’s what the union of firefighters in the USA says – and the UN’s action says it’s right.
- Economically-disadvantaged people that are being asked to volunteer are justified in saying, “How can you volunteer if you have no income, no money and are concerned about the means to provide your kids with something on their plates every night? With all due respec…I say, ‘Please be serious!'” (yes, that’s a real quote)
All of those scenarios are happening right now in response to calls for more volunteers. And there will more of them as a result of this approach by UNV, IFRC and others.
It’s nothing less than a tragedy.