People who volunteer to work at youth agencies think they’re giving their labor for free, but agency managers know better. Several recent studies have tried to answer two questions administrators should ask whenever a volunteer walks in the door: What is this person’s labor going to be worth, and how much is that “free” labor going to cost?
The answers range from about $17 an hour to the first question to as much as $1,000 in total to the second.
“Volunteers aren’t free,” notes a study, “The Costs of a Volunteer,” released last year by the Grantmaker Forum on Community and National Service.
While that may seem obvious now, for years the economic value of volunteers has been calculated in terms of their benefits to an agency, without considering costs, such as training and supervision.
A report in March by Independent Sector estimated that a volunteer’s time at a nonprofit agency last year was worth $17.19 an hour, based on the average earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers. This annual estimate by the Washington-based coalition of foundations, corporations and nonprofits has risen steadily from $11.49 an hour in 1990. An Urban Institute study this year estimated the value to be $20 an hour.
That value, of course, varies greatly depending on the volunteers’ backgrounds and the services they perform. The work of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and computer technicians who volunteer their services would cost a lot more than $20 an hour.
And some agencies rely so much on volunteers that the work is almost priceless. In Louisville, Ky., the Exploited Children’s Help Organization (ECHO) has three full-time staffers and about 150 volunteers to help abused children and their families with family court and abuse prevention services. Executive Director Lucy Lee estimates that volunteers do the work of 10 to 12 full-time employees.
But what about the costs of recruiting, screening, training, monitoring and providing insurance coverage for volunteers? Reports and studies on volunteers tend to focus on the idea that everyone wants more of them, but the studies rarely examine the costs of fulfilling that wish.
A 1998-99 study of eight European agencies, published in the Journal of the Institute for Volunteering Research, calculated that $1.57 (in U.S. dollars) spent on volunteers was likely to produce between $2.05 and $21.24 in help, based on labor costs at the time.
The cost of managing volunteers was a major point in the 2003 study by the Berkeley, Calif.-based Grantmaker Forum, which noted that nonprofits’ annual reports and other financial documents rarely lay out the specific costs and benefits of volunteers.
“Traditionally, the nonprofit sector has promoted to its governmental and philanthropic supporters that its reliance on volunteers is a low-cost or no-cost service-delivery strategy,” the report said.
“People talk about volunteers like they’re a shortcut to everything,” says Jill Blair, project director for the Grantmaker Forum. “But they’re not.”
A 2002 study by Public/Private Ventures (PPV) put “infrastructure” costs of an individual volunteer at $300 per year in staff time for recruiting, training and monitoring. That figure, which originated in a 1999 study of mentoring programs, might be low for today’s economy. The 1999 study assumed a typical salary of $23,000 for workers engaged in volunteer management.
The costs vary with the type of work the volunteer does. Filing papers or preparing lunches is one thing. But volunteers who work closely with youth presumably require a lot more training and supervision. A 2000 PPV study of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS), perhaps the most intensive of all mentoring programs, put the cost at $1,000 for each mentor. That figure is for community-based mentors, while costs for school-based mentors can be lower, says Joe Radelet, vice president for mentoring programs for BBBS.
Increasingly, studies tout volunteer management as an essential service for nonprofits, urging them to spend money and effort to make the optimum use of volunteer help.
“We spend money to raise money, but we don’t spend money to raise people,” says Susan Ellis, president of Energize, a Philadelphia, Pa.-based consulting and training firm that specializes in training that focuses on volunteers.
The idea of volunteer management as a profession is gaining currency. “Most volunteer managers are not paid on a managerial level,” Ellis says. “They’re paid like an administrative assistant, but they may manage more people than the executive director.”
An Urban Institute study released in February, “Volunteer Management: Capacity in America’s Charities and Congregations,” advocates more and better volunteer management.
“The greatest challenge” agencies face is “the inability to dedicate staff resources … and best practices to volunteer management,” says the study, sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the UPS Foundation.
Ellis praises the report in general, but criticizes it for saying that agencies might use the temporary workers provided by AmeriCorps, a CNCS program, to manage volunteers.
“All this emphasis on the need for a true commitment to volunteer management, and the answer is a one-year volunteer?” Ellis asks on the Energize website.
The study, based on data from 1,753 charities and 541 churches that use volunteers in social service outreach programs, claims to be the most comprehensive to date on the subject of volunteer management. It says charities that partner with religious organizations report greater benefits from their volunteers.
The study’s conclusion: Devoting paid staff to volunteer management is the best practice, but the amount of staff time most agencies devote to volunteer management is lower than it should be.
Only three out of five charities studied and one in three congregations had a paid staff person to manage volunteers, the report says. Among the volunteer coordinators, one-third had no formal training in volunteer management.
In Kentucky, Lee of ECHO says she received valuable training through the Association for Volunteer Administration.
But one conclusion in the study – that more than 90 percent of charities have enough staff and infrastructure to take on more volunteers – was widely challenged. The Urban Institute’s Mark A. Hager, one of the report’s authors, says the think tank is reassessing its conclusion that churches and charities can handle millions more volunteers “without any capacity enhancements.”
“We now think there was a bit of wishful thinking there,” he says.
The Urban Institute released a follow-up to the study last month, proposing eight “transformational” strategies, most dealing with increasing training and awareness about volunteer management, and establishing standards and best practices criteria for handling volunteers.
Last year’s Grantmaker Forum study is more circumspect about the capacity of agencies to use volunteers. The study covered 21 organizations, including food banks, hospitals and museums. More than one-third either provided services to youths or used young volunteers.
About half of the agencies said they were turning away volunteers and that to use more, they would need more funding, staff and infrastructure.
Blair, the Grantmaker project director, questions whether professional volunteer managers are the only way to get the best out of volunteer help. “I don’t think we need to use the value of volunteers to justify the creation of a new professional class,” she says.
Contact: Independent Sector (202) 467-6100, www.independentsector.org; Grantmaker Forum on Community and National Service (510) 665-6130, www.gfcns.org/indexa.html; Urban Institute (202) 833-7200, www.urban.org; Association for Volunteer Administration (804) 672-3353, www.avaintl.org.