Do NOT say “Need to Cut Costs? Involve Volunteers!”

(update: Just got a tweet from GiveGood2012, which said,

@jcravens42 love the blog. You’ve made us rethink our marketing gambit. Thank you!!!

Hurrah for them! For all of us! Now, just several thousand other people to go…)

Back in December of 2011, I blogged about Survival Strategies for Nonprofits, also applicable to non-governmental organizations, (NGOs), community based organizations (CBOs), charities, and government agencies focused on the community or the environment, etc., per the current dire economic climate. I wrote that blog in response to so many blogs on similar themes that I found unrealistic – or that said something like this:

Are you a #charity or #socent who needs help to cut costs? Read about our skilled volunteer matchmaking service (a tweet from GiveGood2012)

As my long-time followers know, these kinds of statements drive me crazy, because:

  • Volunteers are NOT free. There ARE costs associated with involving volunteers, particularly volunteers in high-responsibility roles. To involve volunteers effectively, YOU NEED MONEY.
  • People looking for jobs (and, in case you haven’t noticed, there are a LOT of people looking for jobs), as well as unions, read those statements and say, “See, this is where we opposed volunteer involvement – you are doing this to replace paid workers!” It’s why the union of professional firefighters in the USA opposes all volunteer firefighting programs. It’s why the unionized school employees in Petaluma, California protested volunteer involvement in schools. Why shouldn’t they be outraged – you just said volunteers could – and will – take paid jobs away!
  • It leads to poor decision-making by boards of directors and governments. I was contacted by a state historical agency once upon a time. There were patrons of the state historical library that frequented the site and helped fellow visitors in finding information on an ad hoc basis. The agency decided to formalize the activities as a volunteer program, so visitors would know they were talking to someone who officially-represented the organization, so helpers received the proper training, and so helpers received the proper thanks. The informal helpers became formal volunteers, and the volunteers loved it — they saw it as a “promotion”, as a recognition of their knowledge and past help. The volunteer program flourished over just a couple of years, and the agency decided to present it as a success story to the state legislature, which provides funding for the library. Unfortunately, agency representatives presented it in terms of money saved: they calculated a dollar value for each hour the volunteers had contributed, and said, “This is how much money we saved involving volunteers.” And the state legislature was very impressed — so impressed that they cut one of the paid staff member positions and other budget items, and told the agency to do more with volunteers “so you can save even more money.

If you are thinking of converting any roles at your organization from paid to volunteer, do not think of it nor talk about it as a way to save money, and do not think of it nor talk about it as a temporary solution.

Instead, think of it as a permanent re-alignment of your organization. You are doing this for strategic reasons – choose to reserve certain roles for volunteers because you have decided volunteers are the best people for those roles.

Consider this:

  • Does the American Red Cross train mobilize thousands of volunteers to staff most of its services during crisis situations because it “saves money”, or because volunteers are actually the best people for those tasks?
  • Does the Girl Scouts of the USA have volunteers deliver the vast majority of its programs to girls to save money, or because volunteers are the best people for those roles?
  • Do many women’s domestic violence shelters reserve the role of victim’s advocate for volunteers because it “saves money”, or because its clients prefer to work with someone they know is volunteering in that role – they aren’t there for the pay, but because of their desire to help?
  • Does CASA recruit and train volunteers to help children in the court system to save money, or because volunteers are actually the best people for those roles?

When I was directing the United Nations’ Online Volunteering service, administered through UNDP/UNV, the head of UNV at the time, Sharon Capeling-Alakija (whom I miss every day), said something really interesting in a staff meeting that I have never forgotten: she said the reason she was so committed to the OV service was because, without it, “the only way people can be involved in UNV is to become a UNV and going into the field for two years, or by becoming a staff member at headquarters – and most people can’t do this. With this, anyone can be involved in our work now.” I loved that statement. I’ve never forgotten it.

If your organization or program decides that its going to increase the number of volunteers it involves, then reserve certain roles exclusively for volunteers – for instance, all consultancies that will support staff, all front desk/phone staff, all bloggers, all conference support staff, all food servers, etc., and make it a permanent change that will last even when the economy gets better.

Not only are volunteers NOT free, this realignment regarding volunteer involvement will cost money – probably more money than you are already spending now to support and involve volunteers: more volunteers will need to be screened, trained more than once, and supervised and supported, and all employees and volunteer staff in leadership roles will need training on how to work with volunteers – and training is rarely free!

Develop a mission statement regarding why your organization involves volunteers. For example:

All tasks at our organization related to advising new entrepreneurs/mentoring young people/delivering meals/repairing bicycles are reserved for volunteers. We feel these roles, which are fundamental to the meeting of our organization’s mission, are best done by volunteers – unpaid staff donating their time and talent – rather than paid employees.

Such-and-such organization reserves certain tasks and roles specifically for volunteers, per our commitment to create opportunities for the community to participate in, offer feedback and endorse our work.

As a part of our commitment to both transparency and to creating opportunities for community investment in our organization, such-and-such organization welcomes volunteers in a variety of roles, including activities that directly support our paid employees, leadership positions and client services.


Just as some jobs are best done by paid employees, some tasks and roles at our organization are best done by volunteers. We therefore reserve certain positions for volunteers, including…


Our organization involves volunteers so that we can tap into skills, experiences and talents beyond what our excellent professional staff already bring to our organization and its work.


Every employee at our organization looks for ways to involve volunteers in his or her work. This is part of our commitment to involving the community in all aspects of our work.


Such-and-such organization is committed to helping to cultivate new professionals in the field of name-of-field-redacted. Therefore, we reserve certain tasks and roles for volunteer interns, to provide career-development experiences to emerging professionals.



Lots more advice on writing a mission statement for your organization or program, and examples of such, here.

Also see:

Going all-volunteer in dire economic times: use with caution

The Value of Volunteers (and how to talk about such)

6 thoughts on “Do NOT say “Need to Cut Costs? Involve Volunteers!”

  1. Jason Marsden

    Whilst I agree with the title, I think you are ignoring a very simple economic fact of life. In most cases volunteers are cheaper than employees. In most cases volunteers are involved because organisations could not afford to deliver services if they relied on paid staff. Yes, there are many factors to take into account on how a service is delivered but to simply assert that the cost-savings made on involving volunteers (and no I’m not saying volunteers are cost-free) should not be one of the factors just doesn’t reflect life.

  2. Anonymous

    James, you’re missing the point. If you say "Want to save money, involve volunteers!" as a primary reason to involve volunteers, the consequences are harsh, and end up hurting volunteerism. I’ve documented those consequences again and again. It’s NOT the primary reason to involve volunteers. If, after all of the many much better reasons to involve volunteers an organization wants to say that volunteers are cost effective, that’s fine – but volunteers replacing staff to save money should never be the *primary* reason to involve volunteers, for all of the many reasons I’ve said already and won’t repeat here. So you can stay old-school and make unions and people struggling to find employment or who have been laid off angry, and create more anti-volunteer movements, or, you can join the 21st century and help nurture much more volunteer involvement.

  3. Jason Marsden

    Sorry but you are missing my point. I’m NOT saying ‘Want to save money, involve volunteers.’ I’m saying ‘Want to deliver more services for clients, involve volunteers’. What examples do you have of volunteer-delivered services where the organisation has explicitly said we could afford to deliver this with paid staff but actually we are involving volunteers because they deliver a better service than paid staff?I having spoken to many different types of organisations small/medium/large, local/national/international and apart from the odd service (where the value of having someone who ‘wants to’ deliver it is outweighs the value of someone being ‘paid to’ deliver it) they all say we could not deliver this service without volunteers ie they could not AFFORD to deliver it. Taking the very purist approach that you’re taking is actually doing a volunteerism a disservice because many organisations are struggling with funding and are having to make hard decisions about service delivery. By not allowing them to say ‘if we now deliver this service involving volunteers, we can afford to continue this other service’ you are putting clients at risk. And ultimately we are here to serve our clients.

  4. Jason Marsden

    There’s an interesting article in the UK by Rob jackson and Lynn Blackadder about this very point which says "So long as the charity goes about it properly, recognising the strengths and weaknesses of reallocating work to its remaining employees and new volunteers, why shouldn’t it deliver through volunteers if it can’t afford to employ everyone it once did?" ie delivering a service because it’s cheaper to do so through volunteers

  5. Anonymous

    "What examples do you have of volunteer-delivered services where the organisation has explicitly said we could afford to deliver this with paid staff but actually we are involving volunteers because they deliver a better service than paid staff?"Scroll up, and read the blog you are responding to. I describe four organizations that involve volunteers NOT to save money, but because volunteers are the best people to deliver that service. More examples: Big Brothers / Big Sisters (most any mentoring program, actually) and Habitat for Humanity (surely you don’t think it’s cost effective to have volunteers show up for one day to build a house, that THAT’s why Habitat involves volunteers?!). "they all say we could not deliver this service without volunteers ie they could not AFFORD to deliver it. " And they are setting themselves up for their funders to say, "Hey, how about you save even more money and lay off 50% of your paid staff and replace them with volunteers!" I’ve cited examples of this actually happening in my blog. They are also setting themselves up for legitimate criticism from unions, who can point to such statements and say, "We are completely justified in fighting efforts to involve volunteers in schools and hospitals – you are involving volunteers and people who really need those jobs as paid work are paying the price." Just because you are hearing it does NOT make it right. And what about all the cases where volunteers are more expensive to involve than just having paid staff do the work themselves? Do you have any idea how much money and resources go into creating that one-day onsite volunteering experience, or lots and lots of microvolunteering assignments? Those activities not only don’t save money, they can end up costing an organization money! So why do them? Because often, they are a better way of creating community connections, giving people an inside look at an organization, and educating and energizing people about a cause than just sending out a brochure or showing a video. And you are misrepresenting Rob’s blog – he says explicitly that volunteers should NOT replace paid workers! He repeats that more than once! When an organization decides to involve more volunteers, it should never be primarily to save money; if saving money is the primarily impetus for thinking about increased volunteer involvement, because of budget cuts or a drop in funding, then I challenge organizations to move beyond that thinking, and make the increased involvement of volunteers a PERMANENT solution – reserve certain positions for volunteers regardless of what the economy may do a year from now, or five years from now. Decide that you will involve volunteers to help with, or even to lead activities regarding, marketing, HR, IT, program development and program delivery because you believe volunteers – with their unique perspective, and without a financial interest in the organization – will be assets to those functions. Saying "We can’t afford to pay a marketing person – let’s get a volunteer to do it!" is as silly as "We just got a huge grant. Let’s hire some staff because we’ve got some money!" Organizations need to look at everything that needs to be done and think about who would be best to do that job – regardless of what the economy is doing.


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