CNCS continues its old-fashioned measurement of volunteer value

logoIt’s happened again: an official government body touting the value of volunteers as coming primarily because of the amount of money nonprofits and others save in not having to pay staff.

Here are the first and second highlights in an email I received today from a Corporation for National and Community Service distribution list I’m on, regarding the Volunteering and Civic Life in America 2014 (which actually is a report on stats from 2013, and only for the USA):

  • Nearly 63 million Americans volunteered nearly 8 billion hours last year
  • This service has an estimated value of $173 billion (based on the Independent Sector’s estimate of the average value of a volunteer hour)

These stats are the very first highlight on their web site as well.

Here we go again: the primary value of volunteers is the dollar (or Euro or whatever) value of each hour they donate – that means the value of their donated service is the money organizations didn’t have to spend on paying staff.

Yes, CNCS looks at some other benefits – about volunteers becoming financial donors, and about how increased volunteering rates may lead to lower unemployment – though, in fact, the same researchers whose study CNCS is using to say this have noted that they did not establish a causal link between volunteering and employment (page 2) . But at the top of every graphic or document about this report is always the same thing: the primary value of volunteer service in the USA was $173 billion. And that’s what we should be celebrating.

What are the consequences of CNCS, as well as other organizations, touting the volunteer-value-based-on-monetary-value as the primary value of engaging with volunteers?:

  • Governments can be justified in saying, “Let’s cut funding for such-and-such programs 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 funding 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 CNCS’s use of a monetary value as the primary value of volunteers 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 respect…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, as I note in the links above and the links at the end of this blog. And there will more of them as a result of this continued approach by the CNCS and other organizations to always make monetary value as the primary value of volunteer engagement.

How to talk about the value of volunteers? Instead of looking only or primarily at the money value of the hours contributed, CNCS and other organizations could also look at:

  • Are there certain tasks that are best done by volunteers, rather than paid staff? Why?
  • Do increased levels of volunteer engagement lead to or relate to less violence in a community? Why?
  • Do high levels of volunteer engagement lead to or relate to healthier, more sustainable NGOs and civil society? Why?
  • Do high levels of volunteer engagement lead or relate to more voters, more awareness of what is happening in a community or more awareness of how community decisions are made?
  • Does increased volunteer engagement by women contribute to increased empowerment of under-served people and communities?
  • Does volunteer engagement by youth contribute to youth’s education levels or safety?
  • Are there certain kinds of volunteering that have particularly types of impact beyond number of hours given? What is the value of family volunteering, employee group volunteering, tech group volunteering (hackathons), teen volunteering, micro volunteering (micro tasks), virtual volunteering (online service), and other forms of volunteering that are enhanced or reduced in relation to traditional volunteering?

What an important, powerful study that would be that could help volunteers, the organizations that involve such, and the funders that finance the involvement of volunteers (because, of course, we all know that volunteers are never free, right?)!

Also see Initiatives opposed to some or all volunteering (unpaid work), & online & print articles about or addressing controversies regarding volunteers replacing paid staff, a list of organizations and initiatives opposed to some kinds of volunteering (unpaid work), or ALL kinds of volunteering, including unpaid internships at nonprofit organizations / charities. It is also a list of online and print articles about or addressing controversies regarding volunteers replacing paid staff. Most of the links are to initiatives or actions in Europe or the USA.

My other rants on this subject:

Judging volunteers by their # of hours? No thanks.

Research on USA volunteerism excludes virtual volunteering

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

UN Volunteers, IFRC, ILO & others make HUGE misstep

Value of Volunteers – Still Beating the Drum

pro vs. volunteer firefighters

Volunteers: still not free

Fight against unpaid internships will hurt volunteering

Advice for unpaid interns to sue for back pay

Should the NFL involve volunteers for the Super Bowl?

I agree with this anti-crowdsource campaign

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