The Real Cost

October 2, 2014       The NonProfit Times      

Society holds contradictory attitudes about money and those perceptions affect how people see volunteering, too. Let’s explore some of the most common notions, which you’ll quickly see are quite contradictory.

Money Equals Significance; More Money Equals Better Quality: Have you ever sponsored or attended a training workshop that was offered at no cost but required pre-registration? Chances are that as many as 20 percent of the people did not show up (and only a few called to cancel). This is common when something is presented for free, even with advance registration.

Not only is this disappointing to the organizers, but it wastes uneaten refreshments and cheats people on a waiting list of the chance to attend. In de­briefing the experience, someone always says, “few take an event seriously if they haven’t paid even a token fee to reserve a spot.”

Keeping with the theme of professional development, executives will pay for prestigious seminars at major universities, while those at lower levels of the pecking order struggle to afford community college events. The common wisdom of “you get what you pay for” equates the highest cost with the best product while denigrating less expensive and free items.

A variation on this theme is “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth paying for it,” or the labor union position that any truly important work ought to be a paying job. What are the implications about how volunteers are perceived if value is assigned mainly when money is involved?

“Free” attracts. On the other hand, “free” is one of the most powerful words in the marketing lexicon. Advertisers use this four-letter word liberally as a way to get customer attention, prompt a response, and ultimately lead to sales. People love to get something for free. But do they value it?

Unpaid Workers Must Care More: Despite the world’s love affair with making money, we also disdain mercenaries, “money-hungry” people, and those who “will do anything if the price is right.” And we consider heroes and heroines to be those who do something important or risky for others, disregarding their own needs and costs. That’s why everyone is eager to identify with the word “volunteer” during a natural disaster or other crisis. It labels the doer as acting selflessly.

Some recipients of service distrust paid workers as only being helpful because it’s their job to be so. Second, the appearance of caring could be conveyed by doing something during unpaid time.

Paid Workers Are Legit: On the other side of the coin, introducing oneself as a volunteer can suddenly close doors. For years, volunteers at the Philadelphia Family Court were taught to use their position titles when seeking information on the phone. Whenever a newcomer forgot and said, “I’m a volunteer with the Family Court and I’m trying to find out xxx,” invariably the person being contacted responded with something like “can you put that in writing for me?” When this happened, the volunteer was told to try again in a few hours, this time starting the call with, “Hello, I’m a Resource Finder with the Court and xxx.” The second call obtained immediate results almost 100 percent of the time.

The reason for the reaction is the label “volunteer” conveys “no authority,” while a position title implies authority. Think about it. When someone calls you and identifies themself with a title, have you ever thought to ask, “are you paid?” Once again, it’s appearance over substance.

Pay Has Limits and Money Taints: Many extol the work of volunteers in their organizations with the praise, “You couldn’t pay someone to do this.” This represents a line of thought such as: This work is so sensitive, emotionally draining, or otherwise demanding that only someone who is motivated by caring would do it eagerly and someone else would demand extraordinary pay to do it otherwise.

This mission-over-money belief is also why many in the public believe that workers for nonprofits ought to accept low pay or at least not be highly concerned about wages. To seek no money at all is simply taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion.

Whether or not this reasoning makes sense, it is fraught with attitudes about both paid and unpaid workers, isn’t it?

Additionally, the stockholders of a for-profit business want to know that members of the company’s board will share personally in the rewards or losses caused by their decisions, while nonprofit board members are expected to have an “arm’s length” relationship from an organization’s funds and be objective “trustees.” By deriving no personal monetary gain, nonprofit boards assure the public and donors that the organization’s mission is being upheld and its money properly spent.

Few recognize their contradictory beliefs about the power and consequences of money, and certainly do not see that such beliefs affect the way they think about or act toward volunteers. But these perceptions motivate behavior and decisions made in organizations every day.

For example, if an executive believes that paying for something gives it worth, that executive will undervalue volunteers and limit their roles. At the same time, in the same agency, if clients sense that paid staff are providing service mainly as a job requirement, volunteers will quickly be more trusted. Can this be reconciled?

It is not easy to challenge common wisdom, even if it is far from wise. However, you can observe and identify the many perspectives on unpaid work, whether these operate overtly or subliminally, and develop ways to counter negatives.

Whenever possible, do not draw attention to whether someone is paid or not. What matters is being authorized to provide service. In most situations, the word “volunteer” does not need to be put on a name badge as if it is a title. It’s only a pay category, after all. If the person is a tour guide, soil tester, or event coordinator, that is the title that matters. This is not meant to hide the fact that the person is unpaid; it simply does not share this irrelevant fact. (Of course, if it really matters, ignore this suggestion!)

Choose words carefully. Try to limit describing volunteer efforts as “free.” That’s never true, since the organization incurs costs in recruiting and managing volunteers and the volunteers themselves have expenses in serving. Time donors are “cost-effective,” but most often they do not “save money.” They let you spend all the funds you have and then do more; volunteers stretch the budget.

A paid staff member can be just as motivated by genuine caring as a volunteer, while a volunteer can be just as highly skilled as an employee. Or, vice versa. Money does not guarantee competence or dedication and volunteers can be fantastic. Keep educating everyone to assess each individual team member on his or her qualifications, attitude, and caring, not on pay. NPT

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program www.everyoneready.info. Her email is susan@energizeinc.com. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com

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