Op-Ed: The Value of a Volunteer
If you do a cursory search for "what is a volunteer" the word free and freely will come up often. A volunteer is someone who provides labor and time for free or someone who gives freely. And we see this idea reflected in the way the nonprofit world tracks the success of volunteer programs. In our donor brochures we list how many hours volunteers worked for free in a year, in our grant applications we list how much money worth of free labor was generated by volunteers, in our call to action we tell folks how volunteering is a free way to give back to the community. Within cents and decimal points, we can assign an exact number that reflects just how much value volunteers provide us and how much we value them. But in an industry created to address the outcomes of what happens when some have access to fewer resources than others, to fewer resources than they need to survive, when resources are systematically taken and withheld, I believe we must push past this idea that anything a volunteer gives is given for free.
Many organizations and groups in the nonprofit world have a large impact on their communities with a small staff or budget, and their capacity to serve is maximized by a dedicated volunteer base. They take up the responsibilities typically assumed by staff members in larger or private orgs. You have volunteers building and maintaining websites, coalition building, and even managing other volunteers. While I recognize it as a suitable quantitative measure of a volunteer program, I think we must acknowledge the value of volunteers outside of the amount of money they save us on labor and training costs. When a volunteer can provide these types of services to an organization, it is the culmination of their life, career, and educational experience and so we must value them for this as well.
Volunteers exist as more than just unpaid employees. We should be paying them back.
You can pay your volunteers back for their experience and time through the opportunities you provide them. Nonprofit organizations spring up to address the lack of resources and services in communities. Very often, volunteers are folks who find themselves in a position to help others. By giving them the chance to engage in meaningful ways you are rewarding their efforts with tangible action steps they can take to help. Sometimes, we can overlook the fact that many of our volunteers are people directly impacted by our causes, and by bringing them into the fold you support their agency and ability to advocate for themselves. Offer them valuable and diverse ways to serve their communities. Create volunteer opportunities designed specifically for their unique talents and skill sets. Fully acknowledge their places as valued members of your organization by including them in decision-making when appropriate. Keep them updated on changes, successes and even failures. Most importantly, give thanks and appreciation whenever you can. Give it freely.
Volunteers are vital to advocacy work. Advocacy is made possible through community members' collaboration. We must work together to create the changes we want to see in the world. Check out some resources for volunteering as advocacy by clicking the button below.
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