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.

If You Give Me More Helping Hands, Give Me More Cash

The idea of mandatory national service gets bandied about a lot, especially during presidential election years. This year it seemed to pop up more frequently due to the proposals for free college tuition being floated by some of the candidates. People were suggesting at the very least those who received free tuition needed to reciprocate in some fashion such as national service in the military, Peace Corps, Americorps, etc.

Last week a discussion held by a local public radio station on the pros and cons of mandatory service came across my social media feed. The host and his guests made a lot of good points about the cons, not the least of which is that people are supportive of the idea for younger people, but when you suggest a mandatory service of even one hour a month for all citizens, there is fierce resistance.

Most of the negative outcomes they mentioned were from the point of view of those who would be providing service. Something they overlooked was the fact that there is expense involved in administering a service program, regardless of whether the participants are being paid or not. This is true whether the service is military or civil. I am going to mostly address it from the civil side, but the basic factors are almost identical. This issue is overlooked pretty much everywhere I could find a national service discussion online.

Supervisory infrastructure, materials, equipment, space, facilities and dozens of other details are necessary if there are any expectations of a meaningful experience with meaningful outcomes from a mandatory service experience.

Mandatory service on a national or even state level can be a boon to the work that non-profits and other service organizations do, but it will require a significant increase in capacity building funding from some combination of governments and foundations. Otherwise having service workers becomes more of a hindrance than a help to an organization.

This issue needs to be raised a lot more emphatically when these ideas are discussed. Otherwise, people will be looking askance at the non-profit sector wondering how it could be screwing things up so badly when they were being provided with the service of 3 million high school graduates every year.

I think it is too easy to equate added labor with industrial productivity and revenue generation and see mandatory service as a boon to organizational sustainability. But very little work non-profit organizations do generates revenue. Being able to teach more children will require more space and instructional supplies. Being able to feed more homeless or elderly will require more food, vehicles and food preparation equipment. Being able to provide health services to people will require more space, medicine, diagnostic equipment.

More capacity to do these things means more money than ever will be spent. Unfortunately, the organizations’ capacity to generate the money to cover these costs probably won’t increase a whit.

The only area in which I could see any sort of return on investment would be in terms of the old WPA type infrastructure projects. If you have people planting trees that can be harvested decades down the road, clearing/creating parks that can be used to generate revenue or gentrify an area to increase the tax base, then you might tie a tangible result to the service. However, a lot of the needed services have intangible results.

So yes, ultimately the nation would be more unified and healthier for having a stronger ethic of service. But getting there ain’t free.

When Serving Bad Food To Patrons Can Solidify Their Loyalty

Over the years I have made many posts riffing on the idea that marketing it is the responsibility of the entire organization, not just a single department. For that reason, I was happy to see a recent case study report TRG Arts posted on that topic.

Working with Performing Arts Fort Worth (PAFW), they emphasized the need for everyone to be involved in the effort by simply including everyone in the conversation.  PAFW started having patron loyalty meetings where they discussed the issues at hand, including the cost of retaining long time supporters versus attracting new individuals.

That’s when it clicked, and the floodgate of ideas opened up! House management said they were going to make patron loyalty a regular topic at their usher meetings. Someone suggested they send patrons a voucher for a free drink in their birthday month. Someone else suggested they turn the process for testing new concession products into a tasting event for loyal patrons. There were many more ideas that came up, and there were a number of people who said they would take responsibility for implementing ideas. “I never was a part of that process” quickly became “I understand our shared goal and I want to help.”

I particularly liked the idea of involving loyal patrons in a tasting of new concession products. Even if the new options weren’t tasty, the idea that your input was valued could go a long way to cementing a patron’s relationship with the organization. I am curious to know if PAFW has implemented that idea.

There was one thing the TRG piece mentioned that caught my attention:

And yet, there were legitimate operational questions that needed to be answered. If a VIP Presenter would like their complimentary drink in a souvenir cup, whose budget gets charged for the cup? How far can I go (and should I go) to make a patron happy?

The sentence evoked a memory of an episode of the West Wing when newly appointed chief of staff CJ Cregg is running into a lot of opposition from the Secretary of Defense over some new initiative (I think it was accepting the nuclear bombs form the Republic of Georgia). She has a realization that his resistance is based in the fear that the funds to implement this will come out of his budget.

As idealistic as you may be, there is always a cost of some sort associated with every good idea. So if you insist that marketing is everyone’s responsibility, you are insisting that everyone bear some degree of additional cost to implement this directive. The cost may be in time, resources or money.

It will be important to communicate that marketing/patron retention/whatever you call it, is a priority for the organization and allowances (and perhaps allocations) will be made to enable the achievement of this goal. Otherwise internal resistance may thwart your efforts from the start.

Stuff To Ponder: Who’s Volunteering? Who’s Not Volunteering?

VolunteerMatch’s Engaging Volunteers blog recently drew attention to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report (BLS) that shows volunteer rates are continuing to drop.

As the post author Tessa Srebro notes, the BLS report gives us a lot of statistics about what demographic groups are more likely to volunteer than others, but-

What don’t we see? We don’t see the why.

There’s an endless supply of reasons that could explain why volunteer rates are falling. Last year, upon seeing the results, VolunteerMatch President Greg Baldwin argued that volunteer rates are falling because we as a nation don’t invest enough resources in the nonprofit sector. Without resources, nonprofits simply don’t have the capacity to effectively engage volunteers.

Someone in the comments of that post argued that the falling rates can be attributed to the fact that more people are overworked with less time on their hands. Others say people are simply lazier than they used to be.

I personally think it could be attributed to a shifting trend away from community involvement, due to the emergence of online communities, young people moving more often, and other factors.

There were a good number of comments to the Engaging Volunteers post and the number continues to grow. A large number of the commenters express frustration with the organizations they approached being un(der)prepared to train or employ them. Another common complaint was that the organizations wanted them to fulfill menial tasks rather than ones that challenged and engaged their interest.

I am not sure what the percentages have been in the past, but in this recent survey by BLS, the percentage of people who started volunteering after they were asked (41.2%) is almost exactly equal the number who were motivated to volunteer on their own (41.6%).

Given that this latter number represents those who are actively volunteering, it is possible that the percentage of people who are self-motivated to seek volunteer experiences is far larger than those who are motivated by the request of others. That 41.6% doesn’t include self-motivated people whose efforts were frustrated and are not volunteering.

As I have mentioned before, effectively utilizing free labor requires a significant investment of money, resources and attention.

There is a lot in the Engaging Volunteer’s post and the BLS report to consider and so much we don’t know about volunteers’ motivations. There seems to be an increasing desire to have a volunteer experiences be meaningful.

Thinking back to the Hewlett Foundation report I wrote on last month that suggested non-profit CEO’s were looking to continue working for a longer period of time with their organizations, albeit in a diminished role, perhaps it is not too far a reach to extrapolate that skilled professionals in general might desire to continue to apply their high level skills in a volunteer role after they enter retirement.

One last thing I wanted to point out for consideration is the breakdown of areas of interest for different demographic groups the BLS report shows. Knowing this might help your organization better design volunteer experiences for people. (Though you don’t want to stereotype.)

For example, while “Collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food was the activity volunteers performed most often” according to the BLS report,

…main activities differed among men and women. Men who volunteered were most likely to engage in general labor (12.3 percent); coach, referee, or supervise sports teams (9.3 percent); or collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (9.2 percent). Female volunteers were most likely to collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (12.9 percent); tutor or teach (10.6 percent); or fundraise (9.9 percent)

There are similar trends based on education level, marital status and whether people have kids.