A Contrarian's Guide to Volunteer Value (Or an Ode to Volunteer Worth)

Stop trying to prove volunteers are valuable. They are or are not. Numbers don’t make them so.
A Contrarian's Guide to Volunteer Value (Or an Ode to Volunteer Worth)

1 Abandon numbers and dollars when describing volunteer value. In folk tales, when a gift is counted or priced, it loses its magic.1

2 Remember that you cannot measure everything that matters, especially when it comes to community and volunteerism. As William Bruce Cameron puts it, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Stop trying to prove volunteers are valuable. They are or are not. Numbers don’t make them so.

Consider the implications of asking volunteers to report their hours. What does hour tracking tell them? That they are valued when they are on the clock? For their productivity?

Keep in mind that volunteer hours are the by-product of thoughtful community engagement, not the goal.

Don’t confuse volunteer numbers with meaning. Volunteer volume isn’t the same as volunteer impact.

Acknowledge that community and volunteerism are not necessarily linear or num3rical.

Ask better questions even if it’s not possible to answer them fully. Instead of “How many volunteers did we have?“, ask “Did we meet a community need?” and “How do we want to be in community with each other?“.

Focus on the Return on Purpose of volunteerism rather than the Return on Investment. Volunteerism has its roots in community, not business.

Paint a picture. Tell a story. Craft a metaphor about what volunteers mean to the organization and community.

Treat volunteer time and energy as renewable resources that will expand when nourished and contract when treated poorly2.

Be a good steward of volunteer time, however much or little someone has to offer.

Pursue work that is community-driven and just, even especially when you cannot see or prove its worth.

Swap numbers and effectiveness for faithfulness. Parker Palmer3 observes that, “…when measurable, short-term outcomes become the only or primary standard for assessing our efforts, the upshot is as pathetic as it is predictable: we take on smaller and smaller tasks—the only kind that yield instantly visible results—and abandon the large, impossible but vital jobs we are here to do. When faithfulness is our standard, we are more likely to sustain our engagement with tasks that will never end: doing justice, loving mercy, and calling the beloved community into being. 

Adopt love as the organizing principle for volunteerism. Shiree Teng and Sammy Nunez4 remind us that, “Love emanates from the self…but to be in practice, love must show up in community. It is in community that we can see the true power of love in action. Not a romantic, anemic, Disney-fantasy of love, but a tough, gritty, messy, chaotic, non-linear journey (p. 8).” What does love compel us to do that numbers can’t? What would volunteerism look like if we grounded it more intentionally in love? 

With gratitude to Curt Luthye for the conversation and questions that inspired this blog.

Photo credit: Shutterstock


1 Hyde, L. (2019). The gift. How the creative spirit transforms the world. (3rd ed.) Vintage.

2 Brudney, J.L., & Meijs, L.C.P.M. (2009). It ain’t natural: Toward a new (natural) resource conceptualization for volunteer management. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly38(4), 564-581. [This article can be accessed by creating a free account with Academia.edu or you can read highlights on the Volunteer Commons website.]

3 Parker, P. Healing the heart of democracy discussion guide video. https://couragerenewal.org/wpccr/democracyguide/v37/

4 Teng, S. & Nunez, S. (2019). Measuring love in the journey for justice: A brown paper.

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