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“Incentivizing” Volunteering

“Incentivizing” Volunteering

For as long as we can remember, people have debated whether it is effective to give tangible rewards to people who volunteer.

On one end of the spectrum are those who prefer what is still called “pure” volunteering, where nothing of substantive value is offered, other than perhaps a token recognition gift (“token” meaning different things to different people). When Susan first started in the field in the 1970s, some volunteer purists even protested reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses. Today, however, it is considered best practice to offer “enabling funds” so that none are stopped from donating their valuable services due to the costs to travel to, park at, or dress for volunteer activities.

At the other end of the spectrum is the concept of an “all-volunteer” army, in which soldiers receive full pay and benefits but are called volunteers because they signed up voluntarily rather than being forced by a draft. The military, however, does not command its troops through the principles of “volunteer management” and, despite the application of volunteering vocabulary to the military (which, it should be noted, has existed for centuries and in many cultures), no one thinks that armed service is the same as charitable works.

National service programs offer living allowances and end-of-service benefits to recompense enrolled members for full-time service that otherwise would not allow them to earn a living. The language of “volunteering” is sometimes used (as in Volunteers in Service to America or VISTA, and Community Service Volunteers or CSV  in the UK), though increasingly the work is labeled “community service.”

The proponents of cash incentives – or the lure of a prize of some value – are often those who simply cannot believe anyone would give time to a cause without recompense. These are the folks who think volunteering is some old-fashioned concept that is dying out in our sophisticated and time-deprived era – or who see the core principles of volunteering being eroded by a world in which volunteering is fair game for marketization.

Ironically, such incentives are offered mainly for what might be considered short-term service, not to give extra motivation for long-term, truly demanding assignments. For example:

  • The “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” campaign in which anyone giving a day of service was eligible for free admission to a Disney park, worth over US$75.
  • RockCorps concerts aimed at teens and young adults, where admission to a special music event can only be obtained by doing four hours volunteering.
  • The provision of discount cards that entitle volunteers to money off things bought in local stores in return for volunteering.
  • Giving store volunteers the first pick of second-hand goods donated to charity shops.
  • Free or discounted memberships to the organizations for which they volunteer.

The amount of service required for such benefits can be only a few hours, raising the relevant question: what exactly do we want to accomplish with these elaborate schemes? Is four to six hours of service actually worthy of benefits that can have real value? Why are we not designing such incentives to honor the most difficult forms of volunteering – the things that take real effort and lots of time – rather than the easiest? What about those forms of service that have the most impact, regardless of how long they take?

Right now in the UK, a proposal is being debated that local residents can get discounts from their council tax in return for volunteering in their local community. Matthew Taylor, head of The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA) articulated an excellent response on his blog, “A formula for volunteering?”  Such tax relief projects are not new and can be found in several countries, usually at a municipal or county level. Yet another well-reasoned blog on this subject appeared on the Third Sector site as we were writing this article: “Incentives for volunteering aren’t as simple as they look,” by British Labour Party politician Tom Levitt.

There are also timebanking schemes and other alternative-currency programs that promote mutual exchange. Those are based on the principles of barter and are somewhat of a tangent to our discussion here – though worthy of attention in their own right, as well.

Is It Black and White or Gray?

To be clear, we hold pretty similar views on the subject of incentives, especially when proposed by people who do not understand or value the uniqueness of volunteering. But we also recognize that there are some important gray areas that deserve thoughtful consideration. So we’re bringing back an old feature of Points of View that presents something of a debate between us: She says/He says.

Susan Says: “Incentives Sometimes Make Sense”

Debates require at least two sides, so I’ll take the “pro” position here and observe that evaluating the usefulness of incentives for volunteering needs to be made on a case-by-case basis.

First, there are many examples of under-rewarding volunteers, almost to the point of creating disincentives. For instance, special event planning is a huge area of volunteer engagement, especially events designed to raise money. Some organizations, however, balk at giving the hard-working planning committee volunteers free admission to the event itself. They even expect volunteers working at the event – and so cannot participate in it – to pay for a ticket!  These policies are based on the faulty reasoning that the activity is supposed to fundraise and so the dedicated volunteers will naturally want to add to the amount raised.

Well, it’s fine if some volunteers choose to pay cash in addition to their donated time, but doesn’t this attitude discount the value of contributed service? Employees who work at the event generally are not asking to buy a ticket (and may even be paid for the overtime). Organizations need to include volunteer time in their balance sheets. Report the results of a special event like this:

Our Annual Gala this year was a huge success. Through the 2,340 hours of time and effort donated by the planning committee volunteers, a total of $156,000 in cash was raised in a single evening. A big thank you to both our money and time donors!

This may be one of the few times that reporting hours served makes sense! There are, after all, for-profit companies that can be hired to run special events; volunteers, therefore, allow the revenue to go completely to the cause, not siphoned off first to pay contractor bills. The same is true when volunteers vs. paid workers run a phone bank to ask for money.

Seen in this light, why would an organization not give volunteers – at least those who put in a certain amount of time or service – free admission? [The balance can shift, of course, when all sorts of additional perks are added to sweeten the pot, such as charity golf tournaments that give away quite expensive “swag,” such as items of clothing, to volunteers who only show up for the day.]

We should also acknowledge those who take part in fundraising challenges where they need to raise the money to subsidize their own participation, such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for charity. Sometimes these volunteers fail to raise all the funds from friends and colleagues and so meet the balance from their own pocket. Is that fair?

It also seems to me that it's simply a matter of fairness to increase perks for volunteers within an organization as they spend more and more time in the facility or tackle very responsible projects. Benefits do not need to be uniform for every single volunteer. Someone who volunteers onsite for an entire day, for example, feels thanked by a cafeteria discount or free or convenient parking – someone whose service is done online may not even think about it because she or he is not incurring those same costs. The chairperson of the special event committee ought to be seen as a volunteer “senior manager” and perhaps get a designated parking space, if the paid senior staff do.

No less a volunteering advocate than the late Ivan H. Scheier proposed the idea of “staff on a gratuity” in his book, When Everyone’s a Volunteer (Energize, 2003). He discussed how all-volunteer groups struggle with staffing, but the concept he outlined works equally for organizations trying to organize large geographic areas with employees mainly based at central headquarters.

What we don't have is a person to "hold the fort" on a more or less continuous basis. A single volunteer can hardly ever afford the time; the organization usually can't afford the money to hire people who have the time.

Or so it seems. Yet, somewhere between totally paid and totally unpaid is a largely unexplored area variously identifiable as token-paid, stipended, gratuity-appreciated, or the like. This is a "sweetener" rather than a salary, typically in the $75-150 a month range. Along with it, we can offer the widest possible assortment of in-kind incentives—for example, discounts and other special privileges that tend to go along with meaningful memberships...

A sweetener of, say, $100 a month is no more than a percentage of what a full-time, paid executive secretary or administrator can command. But the leverage which locks this person into regularity of office presence is far more than a percent. This is due to the powerful symbolic significance many attach to being paid in any fashion.

Beyond that, many retired people have a fairly close cap on how much money they can make before it begins to cut into their pension or Social Security benefits. For a person trying to break into the job market, there is the promise of growth in salary and stature, as the organization grows.

Often, the financial value to the person hired maybe that of a welcome "extra," perhaps a modest shopping spree or other small fling now and then, a topping off of the vacation fund, or maybe just a little lubrication for a squeaky-tight budget. In all these ways, a little extra can mean a lot.

The caution here is to discontinue token-pay in favor of full pay as soon as finances permit.

Don't call it "token payment." Call it "fee for service," "honorarium," "gratuity" (as in gratitude), "stipend," or what you will. (pp. 32-3)

Ivan Scheier’s concept of a small stipend for the person who agrees to a long-term coordinating assignment is meant to acknowledge the commitment and level of responsibility, not to “pay” for the service. It also recompenses for the things the volunteer may have to give up doing to make time for the intensive role or for out-of-pocket expenses that might never be submitted for reimbursement. He is being realistic.

A similar idea is to stop expecting volunteers in leadership positions to do every single little task associated with their work. So someone chairs a committee and ends up also buying supplies, polling members for meeting times, bringing the coffee. We can separate out the key things we really need from this volunteer –  good thinking, accountability, organizing skills, time spent in meetings, etc. – from the support functions that have accrued to the job over time. It may be possible to then find a volunteer who enjoys doing those things and will give time to support the chairperson, or perhaps it’s time to pay for some clerical/administrative hourly help. One way to cover this cost is to set aside some of the money raised by volunteers to cover such expenses for the next round.

Finally, in the real world, some truly difficult volunteer assignments or odd-time shifts may seem impossible to fill and recruitment attempts have not succeeded. The first reaction should be to analyze what is being asked of volunteers and try to redesign the positions to remove as many obstacles as possible. The second is to assess whether the problem lies in the recruitment techniques, going to the wrong people with an unattractive pitch. If none of these actions produce a different result, it may be time to consider if these should be paid positions. Just be sure you know why you are making this recommendation.

Rob Says: “We Should Not Incentivize Volunteering”

Since Susan embraced the for-incentives position, it falls to me to take the anti-incentives stance.

Susan puts forward a compelling argument for why there are times where incentives work in volunteering. For me, though, the whole concept cuts to the heart of what volunteerism is all about. I want to highlight four fundamental flaws.

First, we need to be extremely careful about incentives becoming rewards. However well intentioned we may be, in providing some sort of benefit with a financial value in order to get someone to give us their time, we open ourselves up to the accusation that what we are actually doing is rewarding that person for doing what we’ve asked them to.

Let’s look at definitions for a moment. An incentive is:

  • A thing that motivates or encourages someone to do something
  • A payment or concession to stimulate greater output or investment

A reward is:

  • A thing given in recognition of service, effort, or achievement
  • Something given to someone in recognition of their services, efforts, or achievements

Take the ticket to the exclusive concert that young people can only get in return for volunteering some of their time. They don’t get it before they give their time, they get it afterwards. Isn’t that really a reward not an incentive? If it were an incentive they’d get it up front, not after the fact.

Even if you don’t buy into this distinction between rewards and incentives, do we really want to be known as a profession that has to bribe people to get involved? Does that really reflect the ethical basis of our field?

Second, once we start to realize that these incentives are actually rewards, we start to see how they really are direct or indirect payments. Put simply, we are paying people for their time and work. That’s called employment, not volunteering. We may have many definitions of volunteering but the concept of employment is clear and universal: the state of having paid work.

The program goes even further because the payments (incentives or rewards) we are encouraged to make to volunteers are below minimum wage. Therefore, not only are we skirting employment law, we are saying that it is acceptable to exploit people’s labor for a pittance because they are working for a nonprofit or public organization. What a great position to espouse by such a supposedly values-driven sector! Why do we think it’s OK to be so hypocritical?

Which brings me to my third objection to incentivizing volunteering: we need to maintain the distinct values of volunteerism.

The majority of volunteering takes place in the nonprofit sector. In the UK, it is reported that at least two-thirds of all volunteering takes place in what we call civil society or the voluntary and community sector. This is a distinct sector from private and public, distinct because of the values held and the reinvestment of all profit back into the cause (which is why non-profit isn’t a great term; profit is fine, it’s what we do with it that counts).

When the volunteering movement starts behaving in the same way as the private and public sectors, we rob ourselves of any distinctiveness. When our solution to the challenges of engaging enough 21st century volunteers to meet our missions is using money in return for work completed, we are saying that we’re no different from businesses or governments who rely principally on paid staff.

Volunteering and the voluntary sector can offer something different and unique that governments and businesses cannot. We need to preserve that difference so we can step in and do the things others cannot, or cannot do as well. If we head down the road of paying volunteers for their work, we fundamentally undermine our uniqueness.

Finally, there’s also a more practical objection after the three philosophical ones above. When we take on volunteers who have, at best, been bribed for their time or, at worst, are getting paid for their service, we run the real risk of creating a multi-tier volunteer program based on motivation. For example, we could have:

  1. Volunteers who give their time for altruistic reasons;
  2. Volunteers who get an indirect financial benefit from their volunteering, e.g., a discount off goods and services in local stores; and
  3. Volunteers who receive a direct payment such as a stipend for their service.

Group 1 represents our traditional volunteers. They may have given years of dedicated service to our organizations. They are reliable and committed. Are they going to welcome the other two groups turning up and giving with one hand whilst they take with the other? And, if the main function of such volunteers is raising money, how are they going to feel that the income they work hard to generate is being spent to incentivize new volunteers to get involved?

Group 2 is going to consider Group 1 to be old fuddy-duddies who have their heads buried in the past. But Group 2, in turn, is also not going to be happy about Group 3 getting cash for their work whilst all Group 2 gets is a concert ticket or discounted membership or reduced taxes.

Group 3 takes direct payment. How long before they consider themselves superior to all the other volunteers as a result? Don’t believe me? I bet paid staff in your agency consider themselves more important than the volunteers because they get paid but volunteers don’t.

Sometimes proponents of offering payment to volunteers do this out of the false assumption that some target populations will never be convinced to volunteer. This is a prejudice. Never assume that low-income communities or people excluded from the mainstream would not do something out of dedication to mission or for their own self-esteem. It is neither unfair nor insulting to give anyone the opportunity to participate in a cause that matters to them.

You see how complex things are going to get, how much more challenging our work as leaders and managers of volunteers is going to become, if we start allowing incentives (or rewards) into our programs beyond reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses, certificates, thank-you lunche, and the like.

There is an old military adage when it comes to doing things: KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Let’s not complicate volunteer management more than we have to. Leave the incentives alone and let’s do what we are good at without resorting to bribery.


All difficult issues have gray areas, as our debate clearly shows. Money cannot be totally separated from all volunteering and we do not tamper with the concept of “pure” volunteering when we reimburse expenses or give small gifts. It may be the amount of money that tips the scales. Offering small amounts of money for volunteer service diminishes the far greater value of freely-offered time and expertise. A tiny reward not commensurate with the effort can actually be insulting. On the other hand, large amounts of cash or valuable gifts change the very nature of volunteering.

As advocates of volunteering, we must challenge the belief that there exists a hierarchy of motives, one where money is at the top and always beats out trying to get someone to do something “for nothing.”  Empowered, self-confident volunteers deserve more respect than that. They would tell you money is not everything and some benefits can’t be measured in cash.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this, too, so please post a response.


Editors' Note: This is not the first time that Susan and Rob have debated issues concerning money for Points of View. Read last year's debate on the merits or ethics of unpaid vs. paid internships, “The Sparking Controversy about Volunteer Internships.”

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