Volunteers: still not free

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersWikipedia is free – for users. Its more than 12 million articles can be accessed free of charge. It’s maintained by more than 100,000 online volunteers – unpaid people – who create articles and translate them into over 265 languages. That makes Wikipedia/Wikimedia the world’s largest online volunteering endeavor.

Unlike most organizations that involve volunteers, Wikipedia doesn’t screen the majority of its volunteers: anyone can go in to the web site an edit just about any article, any time he or she wants to. You want to volunteer for Wikipedia, you just start editing or writing any article. That makes the majority of its volunteer engagement microvolunteering, the hot term for short-term episodic online volunteering.

But, wait — maybe Wikipedia is not free…

This is from a blog post in 2012 regarding its latest fundraising campaign:

The Wikimedia Foundation’s total 2011-12 planned spending is 28.3 million USD.

Funds raised in this campaign will be used to buy and install servers and other hardware, to develop new site functionality, expand mobile services, provide legal defense for the projects, and support the large global community of Wikimedia volunteers.

That emphasis is mine – some of those millions of dollars are needed to support Wikimedia’s involvement of volunteers. Because volunteers are not free. It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and expertise to wrangle more than 100,000 online volunteers and all that they do on behalf of Wikipedia/Wikimedia. And that takes money.

But it’s not just Wikipedia: any nonprofit organization, non-governmental organization (NGO), school, government initiative or community initiaitive that wants to involve volunteers has to:

  • Provide at least one staff member – an employee or a volunteer – to supervise and support volunteer work, to ensure volunteers don’t do any harm to the organization, its clients or other volunteers/staff, and to ensure everyone working with volunteers has the support they need to do so appropriately and successfully. That person has to know how to do that part of his or her job, even if it’s just 25% of his or her job, and that might require the organization to send the person to workshops or classes, to subscribe to e-volunteerism (the leading online resource in the USA regarding volunteer engagement), to read books about volunteer screening, supervising volunteers, child safety… and that takes FUNDING.
  • Everyone that works with volunteers must make sure the work volunteers undertake is of the quality and type the organization’s clients deserve. That might require sending multiple staff members to workshops or classes, to read books about volunteer screening, supervising volunteers, child safety… again, that takes FUNDING.
  • Staff has to develop activities for volunteers to do — activities that often would be probably be cheaper and done more quickly by staff themselves. Those activities must be in writing, to ensure everyone’s expectations are the same. And, newsflash: the majority of people charged with this task do NOT know how to do it! They need support and guidance in creating volunteering assignments. Who is going to do provide that support and guidance?
  • The organization has to monitor volunteers, record their progress and report it to the board and donors, as well as to the volunteers themselves and, perhaps, the public. That takes time and expertise.

Any organization that does not allocate time and resources to these volunteer management tasks ends up with:

  • people applying or calling to volunteer and never getting a response
  • people coming to volunteer and standing around for the majority of the time, wondering what to do
  • volunteers that don’t complete assignments – which means the organizations has to either recruit more volunteers and start again, or give the work to employees
  • volunteers that don’t complete assignments correctly
  • volunteers that blog and tweet about their negative experience with your organization and, perhaps, about volunteering in general!
  • staff that does not want to involve volunteers

Volunteers are not free. I’ve said it many times before, before, and before that and… well, you get the idea.

I’ll keep saying it until I stop hearing people say, “Volunteers are great because they’re free!”

I’ll keep saying it until campaigns to encourage people to volunteer also include resources to help nonprofit organizations, NGOs, schools, communities and others involve and support more volunteers.

And don’t even try to say volunteers save money, because that starts yet another blog rant…

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