UN Volunteers, IFRC, ILO & others make HUGE misstep

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.

Also see: Judging volunteers by their # of hours? No thanks.

22 thoughts on “UN Volunteers, IFRC, ILO & others make HUGE misstep

  1. Gerd Placke

    Thank you very much, dear Jayne, this is the guideline for the discussion there ought to be in Germany. So: Thx again for this clear message.

  2. Tony Goodrow

    Great post Jayne. To your list of ways we can talk about the value of volunteers at the community level, I would like to add one at the organizational level. To what degree does the engagement of volunteers lead to the accomplishment of the organization’s mission? I see a use for calculating a value for the time volunteers contribute but given that it is a resources that is consumed in the process, it ought to be treated in a similar fashion as money being spent. It is a part of how something gets accomplished and not, as the UNV/IFRC position views it, the accomplishment itself. An organization spends money and spends volunteer time in pursuit of a mission. In a well run organization the value of what it accomplishes outweighs the grand total of both types of expenditures.

  3. How Matters

    Important questions Jayne. I recommend the following research monograph and tools to help local communities value their inputs to change processes, whether that be volunteer hours or in-kind donations. In these studies, recognizing the "horizontal philanthropy" already at work within communities allowed them to have more equitable and empower positions within their aid relationships. Wilkinson-Maposa, S. & Fowler, A. (2009). The poor philanthropist I-IV: How and why the poor help each other. Cape Town: Southern Africa-United States Center for Leadership and Public Values. http://www.gsb.uct.ac.za/clpv/default.asp?intPageNr=37

  4. Anonymous

    Thanks to everyone who has posted so far. I had one other post, but before I could approve the comment, it was deleted by the poster. I’m not sure if it was accidental or on purpose. I’m going to re-post it here, without the author’s name, because I don’t want to get accused of deleting comments that don’t agree with me:"Sorry, but I think its actually totally sensible, and actually find your position is one-sided and unrealistic. Here in the UK eqwuating monetary value certainly isn’t ever about making volunteers look cheap – in fact quite the opposite – its and indication to funders, policy-makers and government that volunteers aer worth their weight in gold and that more shoudl be invested in supporting them and that they, and their managers/supporters should be taken far more seriosuly because they are a huge part of both economic and social wealth of the country."Now, Jayne talking: Actually, from what I have read about the "Big Society" movement in the UK, and what I have heard from those that work with volunteers in the UK, equating volunteers with a monetary value IS making volunteering look like a cheap alternative to paying staff, and is being touted by government to do just that! It is causing funders, policy-makers and government to say, "Let’s lay off staff and replace them with unpaid staff, who can do the work whenever they might find some time!" The UK is a *perfect* example of why equating volunteers with money is such a dreadful idea!

  5. mark gamsu

    Hi Jane – Like you sense of outrage and agree with your call for greater sophistication. Putting a financial value on volunteering is a difficult one. My personal feeling is that it is always better to build the evidence up and then use it to have a fight about the values that we should be using. A couple of thoughts – First, in the UK commissioning for health and wellbeing is led by strategies that often do not recognise the huge contribution made by the voluntary and community sector. I think we need to be looking at ways of redesigning services so that they have a much stronger relationship with communities – one of the things that will help here is to be able to be clearer about the contribution that volunteers both in terms of costs and impact. Second, I am not aware of the evidence that volunteers are always cheaper anyway. I have not seen a clear financial model that takes into account the infrastructure required to support volunteers – recruitment, training, support – and the issue of turnover – I am involved in a voluntary organisation and I reckon our average turnover of volunteers is about a year as people use their volunteering experience to move on to further training and employment.

  6. Kevin Baylis

    Jayne,Yes there are downsides to equating a monetary value to volunteer time but that is how a cost benefit analysis works; I think this condemnation is to extreme.Possibly not relevant to the US, in the UK it has been common for funders to expect the recipients to provide ‘match-funding’, however they have been willing to accept a cash value placed on volunteer’s time as the matching funds. All approaches have value at different times?Kevin

  7. jcravens

    Mark said, "I am not aware of the evidence that volunteers are always cheaper anyway. I have not seen a clear financial model that takes into account the infrastructure required to support volunteers – recruitment, training, support – and the issue of turnover…" – Mark, you’re right. So often, when a government or corporate funder says, "Let’s reduce costs and just have volunteers do this or that" (often per strategies that place a dollar value on each volunteer service hour, based on what an employee would be paid), no consideration is taken into the infrastructure required to sustain a volunteer force, particularly one that’s expected to take on a great deal of responsibility and leadership. As for Kevin, no that is NOT how cost benefit analysis work. And the outcry in the UK over the cutting of paid staff in favor of volunteers has been quite loud – surely you are seeing that? While I am, indeed, in the USA now, I’ve been abroad for more than nine years, and my focus on volunteerism has been global for well more than a decade. The consequences of defining the value of volunteers ONLY by assigning a monetary value to their hours, based on if the job were held by an employee (paid staff), are dire no matter what country it happens in. I’ve got a long list of examples of these consequences in my blog (see links), and many more I maintain. The state history office that watched their staffing slashed by funders after taking this strategy to define the value of their volunteers is my favorite, but there are MANY more. When there are so many, many better ways to define the value of volunteers, UNV’s old-school approach is especially puzzling.

  8. Cynthia Roomes

    Well presented post Jayne – congratulations. Seems like the global economic crisis has presented many agencies with an excuse to priooritise monetary implications ahead of human ones, and indeed this is a sad thing. If at UN level the social contributions and benefits of volunteering are not put to the forefront they need to revisit their mssion and values. The UN is a large instiuition and many visit them for information and guidance on the best way to implement change, they have huge global influence (couldn’t put a price on that) and as such should recognise the ethical requirement to wield that influence wisely. I hope they take note of your comments and those of others in this thread, they should also have a word with Voluntary Service Overseas Medicin Sans Frontiere and other national/international aid organizations – this will help them to put the social value of volunteering into perspective.

  9. John Ramsey

    Whilst I agree with everything you say Jayne about better ways of measuring volunteering, surely the manual and statement are about how to encourage a consistent way of measuring volunteering across nations, in a manner that can be easily taken up? The measurements you suggest simply aren’t practical for the type of survey suggested, and would require an enormous will for countries to carry out in a systematic and comparable way.On the assumption that countries won’t measure the impact of volunteering (in a systematic and comparable way), the question then is: is the measurement of the financial value better than nothing? Personally, provided it’s done and explained properly, I think the financial value has a real role to play in getting people/decision-makers/governments to start understanding the true breadth of volunteering. It’s a long, long way from perfect but it can be an invaluable way of grabbing people’s attention before explaining more about the true impact of volunteering.

  10. Redwinelg

    Hi Jayne – no idea why my previous comment gor deleted – not me!! Sad to hear that is common elsewhere Jayne. But also have to respond to the comment re funders. I worked for several years as a grants (distribution/development) officer in the UK, for local, London and national funding bodies, and then later as a trust/statutory fundraiser for groups. So I got to know a lots of the UK funders very well (although we do have literally thousands of funding trusts here, let alone statutory, individual etc!) and I would say the majority of independent funders apart from perhaps some very small local ones, plus many of the larger bodies such as Big Lottery, Capcitybuilders etc, have a very strong awareness of the positive ADDITIONAL value of involving volunteers and would be horrified at any suggestion of replacing paid staff with them. In my honest experience from the other side of the fence as an "evil" funder (?!?!) it actually tends to be the charities themselves applying for the funding who undervalue both staff and volunteers, and decide to squeeze the budgets they put forward towards unrealistic or unethical use of job replacement by volunteers. I do of course understand that specific funder’s application limits sometimes push groups in that direction, but honestly, I don’t feel it is at all fair to blame most independent (ie non-statutory)funders for that here, as they also have a very hard job (can already hear some booing and hissing at that stattement, but just try it! Having to turn down often 70% of even good applications because you haven’t got enough to give or they are just putting forward crazy ideas is an incredibly heartbreaking and frustrating job! Hence my move away from it!!!). Statutory funding, particularly local councils, are however another matter – most are as you said, useless on this, especially with all the Big Society idiocy.Hey ho, maybe this’ll set off a whole new branch of discussion – but maybe we should be more grateful for what we do have in the UK despite the massive hardships of the current recession if Jayne’s description is right? all best wishes Lynne

  11. Rachel Burkitt Vernelle

    I work with hundreds of volunteers in a social housing context and am always shocked at the lack of support most get from landlord organisations who are gaining free, deep insight from their ‘customers’ which they cannot get anywhere else. By this I don’t mean payment of expenses or taxis to meetings, but undertakings not to overload volunteers, helping them to chart a ‘volunteer’s journey’ through their organisations and to develop personal skills. There are a few exceptions to this, but not many. Unlike many voluntary sector organisations, I have yet to come across a Volunteer Agreement in the social housing sector. These tell a volunteer what they can expect from the organisation in return for their input and how they will be valued and nurtured. I often wonder whether the lack of such Agreements in social housing are a result of staff who work with volunteers coming from a housing management background rather than from community development, where the support for and valuing of volunteers is more likely to be seen as a vital ingredient?

  12. cambstreasurer

    I think Lynne may have hit the nail on the head by suggesting that there’s a problem of trying to compare situations that are really apples and oranges.I come from an animal welfare organisation where our "competitors" for donations are other groups which are entirely run by volunteers. There would be a most enormous fuss if we were perceived to be replacing volunteers by paid staff without any animal welfare justification. Conversely, our volunteers (including me!) are entirely happy with the idea that we’re often raising money in order to be able to employ paid staff and with reports on our activities that say something on the lines of: "We raised X hundred pounds which would pay for Y numbers of hours of a vet nurse’s time."At the other extreme there are social enterprises doing work that’s paid for by government contracts and there’s no earthly reason why they should be able to use volunteers simply to increase profits, or to compete for contracts against fully commercial companies.I do feel that the danger of protesting too much about measuring the value volunteering in terms of money input is that volunteers are being given the message that their work is not just free, but valueless.

  13. Anonymous

    Rachel, you said, "Unlike many voluntary sector organisations, I have yet to come across a Volunteer Agreement in the social housing sector." As you are in the UK, could it be from a fear – baseless or not – that it will somehow cause volunteers to be classified as employees? And how do these social housing organizations report on the value of their volunteers – by the impact they have, as volunteers, or in terms of money saved by not hiring staff?"cambstreasurer" – I have never, ever heard a volunteer say they feel de-valued because people *don’t* want to assign a monetary value to their volunteering, but I can find all sorts of examples of volunteers hearing that their time is valued at such and such amount and saying, "Okay then – pay me!"

  14. Susan J. Ellis

    Absolutely agree with you, of course, Jayne! We published a review of the Manual in the current issue of e-Volunteerism at http://www.e-volunteerism.com/volume-xi-issue-4-july-2011/research-practice/1122. The reviewer is Laurie Mook, one of the authors of a GREAT book that is unique in proposing other ways social accounting ways to "value" volunteering: What Counts: Social Accounting for Nonprofits and Cooperatives (http://www.energizeinc.com/store/5-227-E-1).

  15. Wojtek Sokolowski

    I think you are fighting wind mills here. No one is proposing replacing paid labor with volunteers. To anyone familiar with organizational management behavior this idea is absurd on its face. No manager will seriously entertain the idea of replacing paid staff with volunteers for obvious reasons, such as introducing uncertainty to the organization, losing managerial control that comes with employment contract, or liability issues. The main idea behind the ILO Manual is capturing the amount of all volunteering in a reliable manner – something that has been eluding the research community to date. I do not believe that intentional ignorance of how much volunteering is "out there" is a very useful thing. What is more, assigning values to non-market exchanges has been very useful for managing scarce resources – and there is plenty of literature to support this. For a starter I suggest Oskar Lange "On the Theory of Socialism" which makes a strong case for using pricing in optimal allocation of social benefits and resources.

  16. Anonymous

    "No one is proposing replacing paid labor with volunteers."In fact, MANY people are. I have more than a few examples of such efforts here on my blog, and if you follow volunteerism trends in the news, you will hear government officials and corporate leaders call for this. Misguided though it is, these proposals DO happen. "To anyone familiar with organizational management behavior this idea is absurd on its face. No manager will seriously entertain the idea of replacing paid staff with volunteers for obvious reasons, such as introducing uncertainty to the organization, losing managerial control that comes with employment contract, or liability issues."To anyone familiar with volunteer engagement, both from a practitioner and a researcher perspective, it is an absurd idea to think that volunteer engagement, whether replacing paid staff or in entirely new roles, introduces uncertainty to an organization, causes a loss of managerial control or creates liability issues. None of those are the arguments that should EVER be used against the involvement of volunteers. Your point of view that volunteer engagement is someone a loss of program quality or an increase in organizational risk is as absurd as believing the value of volunteers is on their value as the staff salaries they are "saving". I remain a passionate advocate for volunteer engagement – and passionate in my opposition for valuing volunteer engagement in terms of money saved by not paying staff. These latest comments show yet more misunderstanding of the reasons to involve volunteers in modern organizations!

  17. Wojtek Sokolowski

    RE: "volunteerism trends in the news, you will hear government officials and corporate leaders call for this." WS: Strange. I have not heard that argument from anyone but those who want us to fear that this is happening. Can you quote specific examples of those government officials and corporate leaders calling for replacement of paid workers with volunteers?

  18. Anonymous

    "Can you quote specific examples of those government officials and corporate leaders calling for replacement of paid workers with volunteers?" You mean other than the ones I already link to in the blog above? And not only calling for it – but saying that they don’t want volunteers specifically because they feel volunteers replace paid workers? Also linked in my blog? Scroll bar and mouse not working? Okay, let me repeat myself:Several examples are noted herehttp://coyoteblog.posterous.com/another-anti-volunteer-unionBut don’t limit yourself the the USA – criticism of the UK’s "Big Society" effort to replace paid staff with volunteers has been raging for many months now. Here’s a *bit* about thathttp://coyoteblog.posterous.com/more-on-the-uks-big-societyThat will get you started.

  19. Wojtek Sokolowski

    You are trying to pull an Ayn Rand. You provide examples of YOUR INTERPRETATIONS of what you believe is other people’s intents as if they were objective facts. This is not what I asked you to do. I asked you for properly sourced quotations from political or business leaders that explicitly call for replacing paid workers with volunteers. Not encouraging volunteerism, for everyone does this, but saying that organizations ought to replace paid staff with volunteers.I can provide you with a direct quotation from the ILO Manual that explicitly counsels AGAINST replacing paid workers with volunteers. It is on page 4 paragraph (vi):"Volunteer work and paid work are best viewed as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. ??? Volunteer workers are often available for only limited periods of time??? They may not possess the precise experience or skills required for a specific job.??? On the other hand, volunteers can often contribute in ways for which paid staff may be less well equipped (in mentoring relationships, for instance).??? Both the volunteer work and the volunteer experience are enhanced when the tasks performed are organized so as to involve collaboration with paid workers."So until I am shown to the contrary, I believe that the only people who talk about replacing paid workers with volunteers are those who are imagining that this is happening and fear their own imagination.

  20. Anonymous

    It’s fascinating to hear someone say, in so many words, "No, all those examples you have posted aren’t really happening." I’m just *interpreting* that, for example, that the union in the USA for firefighters is against volunteers because they see volunteers as a threat to career firefighters (http://coyoteblog.posterous.com/international-association-of-fire-fighters-is). Sigh. Thanks, but I’ll stick to talking to those actually working with volunteers and advocating for volunteerism for my facts. Really wish "researchers" would do the same. For all of the many others who have chimed in with the same concerns about equating volunteers with money saved/salaries that don’t have to be paid, let’s keep the pressure on UNV, ILO, and government officials – a good way to do that is to get the word out about the consequences of doing this (feel free to use all of the examples I’ve found, and add your own). We’ve got a lot of work to do to undo the damage this messaging has caused regarding volunteerism!And a word of advice: anyone who reads my materials knows I have as much in common with Ayn Rand as Woody Guthrie has with Ted Nugent.

  21. Wojtek Sokolowski

    Ayn Rand was known for using excerpts from her literary fiction as quotations to prop her (pseudo-) philosophical arguments.Furthermore, you did not answer my post in which I give you a quote from an actual document that proves your claims wrong.

  22. Anonymous

    Page 4 paragraph (vi) in no way negates that this report, first and foremost, encourages the value of volunteers based on the salaries a company would have to pay if they employed people instead. You can’t put that report in a document that has volunteers-save-money as its central theme and say, "See?! We didn’t *really* mean that." From the report, under "Why Measure Volunteer Work / Volunteer work is sizable and creates significant economic value.. evenconservatively estimated, the value of contributions of time outdistance the value ofcash contributions by at least 50 percent on average.""All told, even conservatively estimated, these volunteers make a $400 billioncontribution to the global economy."And page 6:"the UN General Assembly, in the resolution resulting from the UN Year of Volunteers, called on member countries to ???enhance the knowledge base??? about volunteer work and to ???establish the economic value of volunteering??? (UN General Assembly, 2001)."Money saved by not paying staff – that’s what’s meant by "economic value". And that fuels organizations like the union of professional firefighters in the USA and others cited in my blogs that are fighting so hard against volunteer involvement in various community initiatives. That kind of hostility to volunteers does NOT help societies – yet you are ready to give them plenty of fuel for that fire. I encourage people to read the report for themselves. And the proof about how this report views the value of volunteers will be when the results from the surveys this report calls for come in – and talk on and on about the money volunteers save, valuing their hours in dollar/pound/euro values based on what would have to be paid to an employee instead.With so many excellent reasons to involve volunteers – some of which this report even cites – and so many better ways to measure the value of volunteers, it’s a puzzle why major institutions remain stuck in the past regarding thinking about the value and impact of volunteers – and reduce themselves to name-calling in order to defend that position when challenged. Imagine if, instead, they had talked to at least some of the many thousands of people who work with volunteers, via various traditional conferences for such, and the many online discussion groups for such (note – I have not seen ANYONE representing this report talk about it on any of these online forums for those that work with volunteers, never engaging with those of us who could have offered so much to help with this). It’s not too late to correct this misdirection – will they?


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