Volunteers: Nonprofits really want their money, not their bodies

Today’s New York Times has a rarely expressed view (and, almost as rarely, a view that we share): that volunteering is largely a waste of time. In it, Aaron Hurst quotes an anonymous nonprofit executive director saying that “If I get another volunteer I am going to go out of business.”

It’s a common misconception that volunteers help nonprofits to do work that wouldn’t get done otherwise. But volunteers are actually there to keep them involved in the organizations and for purposes of seeking donations—or buying tickets for galas, art auctions, and so forth. The more contact a volunteer has with an organization, the more likely they are to donate. Nonprofits, like other businesses, need money in order to carry out their activities effectively—not untrained volunteers. Volunteer labor is often not worth the money that’s paid for it.

Decades ago, Isaac was the Executive Director of a nonprofit called the Hollywood-Wilshire Fair Housing Council, and he learned quickly to dislike volunteers. Volunteers didn’t know anything about fair housing and rarely had the skills that matched what the nonprofit needed. This is intuitive in your own life. Let’s say you need to get divorced. If a plumber shows up and says, “Gee, I’ll help with the divorce paperwork,” you’re going to be pretty unhappy with the outcome (so is the judge who has to read pleadings written by a plumber). If you have a clogged toilet you are not likely to want a lawyer in a $1,000 suit standing there charging you $350 an hour to scratch his head and ask which side of the plunger goes down.

When Isaac worked in Fair Housing, he realized how much time he spent messing around with volunteers relative to the amount of real work that got done. To him it seemed a waste of time, especially because volunteers would often screwup the work that then had to be redone by staff—but because they were volunteers, no one could say, “You screwed that up and need to do it right.” Consequently, volunteering comes to resemble a game in which volunteers are praised for doing almost anything, no matter how ineptly or counterproductively, like many public school students.

It can be more expensive to do something with volunteers than it is to do something without, in the same way that giving canned food to the homeless is much, much less efficient than giving them equivalent cash.

Wrangling and deploying volunteers is difficult. Let’s say you want to hand out flyers. You have to give them T-shirts, get them breakfast, and transport them—and handing out flyers is not usually fun and exciting. Volunteers who get bored just leave. Mixing volunteers and paid staff in the same activity tends to demoralize both groups, since paid staff are having otherwise paid hours stolen from them, and volunteers feel like they’re not doing work that wouldn’t get done otherwise.

Many would-be volunteers also find working with kids and helping the next generation to be more satisfying than working with average adults or “elders.”* But working with kids today means police background checks, constant supervision, and limited if any one-on-one time. Arranging the police background checks can be expensive and time consuming, and the costs for screwing up the background checks or not doing them properly could be catastrophic.

Finally, as Tyler Cowen points out in Average is Over, low-skill labor is not in short supply. The number of people willing to work for $9 an hour is high. The news is filled with stories about 20,000 people applying to work at every new Wal-Mart. In addition, anyone who wants to learn about teamwork or whatever else volunteering is supposed to teach can try working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. Those places are as good as anyone for learning such virtues and at least as good as volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

To return to Hurst, he also says something that’ll resonate with our readers:

Working in a nonprofit is no guarantee of having meaning in your daily life. Many nonprofit employees lack purpose in their work. Their organization may be doing inspiring work in the world, but the day-to-day job doesn’t generate much involvement.

Find meaning elsewhere. There is nothing intrinsically not-meaningful in working for a corporation. In the past decade who has provided more net happiness to the world: Apple Computer or every nonprofit in America? It’s not an answerable question but one could create a reasonable set of arguments for each side in a debate.

In the grant world, there seems to be a general trend away from volunteering: we don’t see many RFPs that require volunteers or even mention volunteers. But almost every proposal requires collaboration with other organizations. That’s ascendent. When even the Department of Labor or Education stops talking about volunteers, you know the idea is dead.


* Free proposal word here; I prefer the more accurate, direct term “old people.”

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