The Value of Volunteerism: 5 Real Life
Measures That Truly Count
According to research, there has been intense debate over whether and how to calculate the economic value of volunteerism, ever since the notion of assigning it economic value began in the 1960s.
Some have argued against quantification, citing the “statistical insignificance” of the activities and the impossibility of evaluating and measuring the value of volunteering. But they have also been countered by those who believe that the value indeed could be estimated, at least to some degree.
The fact that there are countless techniques for attributing monetary equivalents to the value of volunteerism means that we still lack a single universal way to calculate or express it.
Just some of the methods of volunteer valuation to date have included:
- Replacement Cost
- Opportunity Cost
- Societal Benefits (Contingent Valuation)
- Value of Volunteer Time
- Value of Pro Bono Service
- Money Saved (due to increased program efficiency)
- Money Saved (due to decreased crime, etc.)
- Value of Society
- Value to Community
- Benefit to Service
With a lack of global standardization, it is really up to each organization to determine how it chooses to demonstrate the value of volunteers, using their preferred impact reporting measures.
If you’re interested in more on this topic, we advise on effective methods you can use in this blog post.
The Value of Volunteerism: With an Unclear Definition
Even a definition of the term ‘volunteer‘ is subject to debate. Most definitions do reference the same basic aspects; nature of the reward, the degree of obligation, the organizational context, and the relationship to the beneficiary. (It can get so academic!)
Based on these, volunteers are generally defined as people who contribute their time, skills, or services to an agency or organization without receiving direct financial compensation for their work. This is all well and good for valuation, until the tasks volunteers perform overlap with staff responsibilities. Then the idea of value, even the very definitions of staff and volunteer can get really complicated.
The Value of Volunteerism: Where We Can Agree
Volunteer program managers are ultimately responsible for designing and implementing successful volunteer strategies at their organizations. To this end, they need a broad range of data – this might include volunteer satisfaction surveys, Return on Investment (ROI), the value of volunteer time, program performance outcomes, budgets, etc.
According to the Council of Nonprofits, “Absent volunteers, many charitable nonprofits would not be able to conduct programs, raise funds, or serve clients.” That says that there’s an extraordinary amount of good work that simply would not be getting done were it not for volunteers and leaders of volunteers, around the world.
Even among the valuation methods listed earlier, there is often no easy way to calculate the Societal Benefits, Money Saved, or Value to Community of volunteerism as a whole.
Those of us in the industry know that Replacement Cost, Opportunity Cost and Benefit to Service valuations, if mental and emotional health could be factored in, would show volunteerism to be a vital overall element to support human well-being.
Since we don’t yet have metrics for this, calculating the lifetime value of a volunteer is one way to assess volunteer contributions of time and talent. Lifetime value offers a metric that can inform your program management processes. While it is often controversial when applied to volunteers, this kind of metric is often used by fundraisers to make informed decisions about how to best cultivate and retain financial donors.
An impact portfolio is another way to show value. Much as corporate shareholders seek positive growth in their financial portfolios, volunteers and donors want to see their investment in good causes reap rewards in the form of a social return on investment. One way to communicate the transformations nonprofit supporters make possible is by pulling the information together into a “Portfolio of Change” to show volunteer impact.
A Portfolio of Change tells the story of your organization‘s work on behalf of the community. It can depict the impact of a single program and shed light on the collective experiences of clients, volunteers, staff, your community, your funders, and others who are affected by your work.
It’s Not All Quantifiable
Often, and justifiably, the work of NPOs must be expressed in dollars and percentages. It is the language of commerce and fiscal responsibility.
Since it is National Volunteer Month (in the US & Canada), let’s set all of the semantics aside and speak to you about the intangible, immeasurable, even indefinable value of volunteerism.
In just these few examples, you’ll see ways in which volunteers give and receive more than could ever be explained with figures on paper. These are powerful examples of how this value can be expressed.
The Value of a Life Saved
At Tobi Johnson & Associates, we have advocated the importance of developing and communicating good volunteer position descriptions. We’ve educated folks on communicating to prospective volunteers using the key motivators that draw people to serve. Leaders of volunteers are encouraged to speak to the emotional reasons one would choose to serve an organization.
This page, from the website of Atlanta Mission demonstrates all of these best practices and goes all in, communicating the value of volunteerism. They talk of their work bringing acceptance and love into the lives of those who experience far too much cruelty and ridicule. This appeal tells that volunteering helps spread the message of healing and hope. In this case, they state assuredly that being a volunteer can save a life.
The Value of Being Helped by Helping
In her compelling Tedx talk, Madrina Ciano shares the value she found in volunteering. It is an eloquent and moving testimonial to the incalculable worth that can be found in service to others. In her talk, Ciano reveals struggles and disadvantages that could have, understandably, led her down a negative path in life and how volunteering turned that around.
From vinspired, UK’s leading youth volunteering charity, comes video testimony from a youth volunteer. In it, Darryl talks about how volunteering helped him branch out and find friends with perspectives different from his own. You can see in his face, as he speaks, the value he places on having had his mind opened.
The Value to Employers Who Support Volunteering
Employee volunteer programs have been shown to increase employee satisfaction and retention. Organizations with higher employee satisfaction have better bottom line results. These economic benefits are due in part to lowered employee turnover, which decreases the need for training. Plus, with more experienced employees staying on, efficiencies are found that further fuel a company’s success.
Other benefits of employee volunteer programs are:
- Enhancements in employee recruitment
- Increased Employee Purpose
- Skill Development
Wise organizations understand that by developing employees who are more engaged, they can make their companies more profitable. So, volunteering also impacts the bottom line.
Value to Recipients of Direct Volunteer Service
One incalculable metric in the value of volunteerism would be the impact that direct volunteer services have on individuals. There is no way to quantify the level of comfort offered in a crisis, the relief someone feels at being sheltered or fed when they’re in need. The enormity of psychological and emotional support received from volunteerism is a challenge to even articulate.
One example, so simply stated, begins to convey the importance of volunteers to the youth in the 4-H program. A Purdue Extension presentation tells us that the youth benefit from volunteers who:
- Care about them
- Let them know they are valued
- Provide opportunities for them to make decisions and try out ideas
- Show confidence in their ability
- Help them develop new skills;
- Communicate realistic, appropriate, and positive expectations
- Listen to them
- Spend time with them
- Recognize their efforts, achievements, and special qualities
- Serve as good role models
So simple, yet so profound. And valuable!
Intrinsic Reward and Health Benefits for Volunteers
There have been innumerable studies on the value of volunteerism to volunteers themselves. This is yet another case where no amount of bean counting could say what it is worth to someone to receive the emotional rewards of their labor. The list of benefits could probably go on indefinitely. Below are just a few citations:
Helpguide found that volunteering offers 4 ways to feel healthier and happier, telling us that it:
- connects you to others
- is good for your mind and body
- can advance your career
- brings fun and fulfillment to your life
Grow Ensemble tells us that by volunteering you can:
- meet new people and build community
- gain knowledge and understanding of other ways of life
- gain a sense of purpose and become happier
- boost your self-esteem
- advance your career by improving job prospects
- accrue the health benefits of volunteering
- increase your brain functioning
This academic study undertaken by the Gerontological Society of America to document the benefits of volunteering from the perspective of older adults, proves that older adults perceived that volunteering benefited them, their families, and their communities. The study also states that negative effects from the volunteer experience were very infrequently reported.
Among the most widely reported benefits were: contribution to others and the community were the benefits most widely reported, and the perception that their work made a difference in people’s lives.
Other reported benefits were:
- I brought information/resources back to family and friends
- family is less concerned about me
- I got family and friends involved in volunteering
- my family is proud of me
- family is more aware about social or community issues
- community is better off because clients served are better off
- community conditions are improved (cleaner, safer, etc…)
- there is increased intergenerational understanding in community
Imagine an elderly relative of yours making these claims to you and seeing the pride in their face as they do so. Clearly, there’s so much more to the value of volunteerism than can be told on a spreadsheet!
Honoring the Value of Volunteerism
So, with limited ability to report on the scope and depth of benefits derived from volunteers and volunteering, we must encourage the respect of that value in other ways. As leaders of volunteers, it is part of your job to weave the value of volunteerism into the very culture of your organization.
This article on volunteer and paid staff relationships offered this descriptor: “For example, if differences between the status of volunteers and paid staff are accentuated, then the setting within which they relate will maintain clear distinctions. Perceptions of those distinctions will become part of the underlying assumptions of the culture. If paid staff see volunteers as difficult to manage, as drains on their time, and as having less status than they, then those cultural assumptions may become so ingrained that they become subconscious. Volunteers who enter such a culture will pick up on those as-sumptions,…”
How you and other leaders in your organization feel and behave about the value of volunteerism and volunteers themselves becomes part of your organizational culture.
On the days when you’re being particularly challenged, I hope that you will remember some of the valuable examples shown here and continue to serve, honoring the true value(s) of volunteerism.
The more you value their work, the more likely they will remain deeply committed to your cause.