Free Labour Wanted**But Conditions Apply

This article is an extract from Chapter 13 of Doing Good Well: What does (and does not) make sense in the nonprofit world by Willie Cheng.

Willie Cheng was a former partner of global management firm, Accenture. Since his retirement in 2003, he spends a large part of his time working with non-profit organisations at the board and volunteer level.


A few years ago, I attended a volunteer briefing for a mission trip to Sri Lanka. The nonprofit manager spent much of his time telling the volunteers that they should not expect too much information or help from him as it is the beneficiaries, not volunteers, who were his “customers”.

The tone of the meeting was so bad that a volunteer meekly raised his hand and asked if he could be treated as a “secondary customer”. True, the volunteer manager may have felt overwhelmed by the barrage of questions posed to him from this batch of “privileged” yet anxious Singaporean volunteers headed into unfamiliar terrain.

It is true that when volunteers become difficult, they can be a strain on the organisation. Such volunteers have been called “volun-terrors”, and even “volun-terrorists”.

What’s an organisation to do? Fire them?


Free but Valuable

These incidents illustrate a common perception that volunteers are nothing more than free labour. Nonprofits simply use volunteers because they cannot afford to have paid labour.

Such a view underestimates the true value of volunteerism.

A study done by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Center (NVPC) compares the cost versus the economic value that volunteers contributed in 24 volunteer host organisations (VHOs). Only two VHOs had negative returns: the cost of recruiting and managing volunteers exceeded the equivalent labour costs contributed.

Had the VHOs known their true cost, would using paid labour not have been a better option? From a purely economic standpoint, the answer is “yes”.

However, it may not be the right answer if you consider the broader impact that volunteerism has on nonprofit organisations and the community. One must look into the non-economic value of volunteerism.


Non-economic value

So what value is there to using volunteers beyond free labour? It all boils down to engagement of the individual volunteer with the VHO and the community, and engagement of the VHO with the community. An engaged volunteer represents an extension of the VHO’s personality into the very community it aspires to serve.

An example of how cost may not necessarily be a prime driver for volunteer engagement is in the use of volunteers for rebuilding houses destroyed by natural disasters, such as in trips organised by Habitat for Humanity.

Volunteers usually cover travel and accommodation costs, and part of the costs of the construction materials – costs ranging from US$500 to US$1,500 for each volunteer.

Critics contend that the same money would go much further if it was spent on local labour. Not only is local labour much cheaper than imported foreign volunteers; volunteers are often inexperienced in construction and the local environment. Using local labour also helps to gainfully employ the displaced victims of the disaster.

But ask any returning volunteer and it does not take long to be convinced of the value of such humanitarian trips. Some volunteers share that they go through a life-changing experience, determined to be involved in future projects.

What is more significant is that many realise they may have been less than forthcoming with their time and donations prior to the volunteering experience. Several studies show that those who volunteer are more inclined to donate and to give more than the average donor.


Community Raising

Volunteerism encourages people from diverse backgrounds to bond with one another. The spirit of community that volunteerism generates benefits not just individual VHOs, but the whole charity sector and the overall community. Volunteering connects individuals and organisations, and teaches norms of collaboration that carry over into political and economic life.

In 2000, I attended my first Olympics in Sydney and was met at the airport by a volunteer. I learnt that she was one of some 47,000 volunteers, mostly Australians, who had raised their hands for the simple joy and pride of being part of a historic moment in their country’s hosting of the Games. She and the other volunteers were excellent ambassadors for Australia as well as the Olympics movement.

An impressive example of sustained community raising is that of SOLV (Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism). With only 26 staff, SOLV has been able to mobilize nearly 100,000 volunteers a year to “build community through volunteer action to preserve this treasure called Oregon”.

Another example is Gawad Kalinga in the Philippines and its vision of “slum-free, squatter-free nation through a simple strategy of providing land for the landless, homes for the homeless, food for the hungry and as a result providing dignity and peace for every Filipino”. SOLV, Gawad Kalinga and other volunteer community projects show the power of volunteering in building and even transforming communities. Thus, the act of giving back is good for volunteers as well as the community.