Volunteering Ain’t Free

Somewhat apropos of yesterday’s post, Non-Profit Quarterly had a post about Phoenix Comicon’s recent decision to charge volunteers to work their convention.

I am not sure this is really a scandalous decision given that many outdoor festivals I know have had this policy for going on two decades. The more controversial aspect might be that the Con is a for-profit company that was requiring people to become members of a 501 (c) (7) non-profit for which the Con leadership were officers in order to become volunteers. Many objected that this was a major conflict of interest.

But as the Non Profit Quarterly noted (and as I suggested yesterday), co-ordinating the work of volunteers ain’t cheap:

Finally, for charitable nonprofits, or 501(c)(3) organizations, requesting payment for volunteering is an increasingly popular practice, and one that helps organizations sustain their operations—and, in particular, recruit, manage, and sustain the volunteer workforce they often rely upon. While it can feel counterintuitive for volunteers to pay to serve, the effort required for nonprofits to absorb and deploy a volunteer workforce is significant. As both formal corporate volunteer programs and solo entrepreneurs looking to build up their client base increase, volunteers are a plentiful resource for 501(c)(3) organizations. It’s critical to balance the value these volunteers deliver with the cost it takes to engage them.

Another reason to charge volunteers many event organizers, both for and non-profit, will cite is that it shows investment and provides incentive to actually work their shift. As someone who has run an outdoor music festival, I can attest that there is always a segment of the volunteer base that sign up just to get free admission to the event. According to a re-post of a letter by Phoenix Comic-con’s director, combating no-shows and reining in ballooning staffing was the primary reason for pursuing a pay to volunteer model.  In the last few days, they have re-evaluated their decision to have volunteers register as members of the aligned non-profit.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Volunteering Ain’t Free”

  1. There was an interesting study done at an Israeli daycare where a decision was made attempting to curb parents picking their children up late. Initially this was an intrinsic issue of doing the right thing, and some parents simply could not be on time. But the decision was made to fine parents for lateness thinking this would motivate them to show up on time. It actually had the opposite effect. More parents were more late more often. Rather than a disincentive the change was perceived as offering permission, albeit at a cost. The cost was simply now acceptable. It changed from a moral situation to a financial one, and was now seen as simply the cost for spending more time at their own pursuits. Making it a money issue changed the parents reasoning from the intrinsic value of doing the right thing to an extrinsic value of what it was worth for them to show up late.

    Volunteers are usually there because they care about doing the right thing, supporting efforts they believe in. This idea of charging them to work may or may not have an effect. But feeling used is not going to be an incentive. If you would gladly do something for free, because its the right thing to do, being charged to do it potentially also threatens that intrinsic value. But the ones who are trying to game the situation and get in for free now definitively have an excuse. Its no longer strictly a moral issue but a financial one. The conceptual frame is now solidly financial. If they are motivated to be there for the event experience but not so much to help the question is now whether the price paid is affordable. The intrinsic moral implications have been mostly removed from the picture. If you feel you are paying for something, then what you deserve in return is a legitimate question. It become a transaction rather than a thing done for its own sake.

    The difficulty of affording volunteer labor may simply not be well solved in making it an extrinsic issue for them. If we put the financial burden on volunteers we are potentially undermining the intrinsic reasons for doing volunteer work. I would be very careful trading a person’s willingness to do the right thing for what they feel they can afford to pay. Those are dangerous seas to swim in……

    • Yes, I had read that case at the Israeli daycare.

      When it comes to conventions/festivals/concerts, pay to volunteer works best when you have enough or more than enough people signing up because it can serve as a disincentive to those who intend to get in free and slip away from their post to see what they want.

      There is a festival near me that charges $12.50 to volunteer saying it covers the cost of the shirt and administration of the volunteer program. I think the 50 cents actually contributes to the sense that they aren’t exploiting volunteers.

      In the case of Phoenix Con, while the $20 charge seems reasonable, their biggest problem is clearly internal controls and they recognize that.

      The director admitted there was recruitment of people for the sake of recruitment and no one knew what jobs many volunteers were doing. They have made significant cutbacks and plan to do more in the future after some evaluation and introspection.


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