Weaving a More Complete Tapestry of Volunteer Value

If a discipline as driven by numbers as accounting is just one view of an organization, how limiting is it to use financial value as the main descriptor of volunteer value?
Weaving a More Complete Tapestry of Volunteer Value

“Our lot as human beings dealing with a complex, multi-dimensional and paradoxical world,
is that our knowledge can do no more than create a weak and rather uni-dimensional representation of that world
Gareth Morgan  

This quote resonates with me because it explains why it is so hard to capture volunteer impact in our organizations and communities. It also makes me realize how we diminish that impact when we limit volunteer reports to the numbers of volunteers and hours along with a financial value like the one assigned by Independent Sector (IS). 

These figures represent the industry standard for tallying volunteer value, but they have always troubled me a bit. A conversation about critical accountancy with Dr. Laurie Mook, a professor and accountant, helped me understand why. (Yes, things are going to get a little nerdy, but stick with me.)

Dr. Mook provided a brief primer on critical accountancy. She shared that accounting is a set of rules to determine the financial state of the organization. However, “if you look at what’s included and what’s excluded, it presents...one particular reality that informs decision making. And there are other realities. When you start thinking about things from that perspective…it opens up other ways of looking at things.” In other words, critical accountancy tells us that traditional accounting practices are just one approach-among many-to explain an organization's financial state.

Research from Dr. Gareth Morgan provides additional insight. He points out that the reality of accountants is represented with numbers. As a result, accounting statements are good at capturing the quantifiable aspects of organizations. However, they have limited ability to tell us about organizational realities that aren’t easily quantified. Dr. Morgan uses the example of hospitals. “Financial controls can make hospitals more efficient. But they can also make them less humane.” (p. 482)

So what does this have to do with volunteerism?

Precisely this: if a discipline as driven by numbers as accounting is just one view of an organization – and leaves out other important views – how limiting is it for us to use financial value, along with volunteer numbers and hours, as the primary ways we report volunteer value?

At some level, we all know this, of course. What I love about Dr. Morgan’s take on critical accounting though is that he sees the work of accounting as an “interpretive art”. He views accounting statements as an invitation into “conversation or dialogue” rather than as the final word on an organization’s financial status. This conversation requires the ability to acknowledge and make meaning of the “many and paradoxical dimensions” of our organizations. (p. 484)

Yes! What a useful way to think about the work of Volunteer Administrators: as leaders who help interpret, make meaning, and facilitate dialogue about the value of engaging the community in meeting our mission. Of course, our board or funders may favor quantifying volunteer volume and financial value. We do not have to stop with these data points though. The bigger work is to help them (and others) see the many diverse ways that volunteers add value to our organizations. According to my research on volunteer value, these might include:

  • Number of clients that volunteers help serve
  • Number of services that volunteers help provide (such as meals delivered, rides given, kids tutored)
  • Quality of the service provided by volunteers
  • Amount of money or in-kind gifts that volunteers donate or help raise
  • Stories that capture the intangible or uncountable ways that volunteers contribute
  • Partnerships or collaborations developed through volunteer connections
  • How volunteers reflect the community served
  • Number of people educated about the organization and its cause by volunteering
  • Levels of satisfaction with the service that volunteers offer

The IS rate is one strand in the volunteer value tapestry. Dr. Mook notes that the IS rate is useful for making volunteers visible in the organization by translating their time into dollars that can be entered into financial statements. It also can help organizations include volunteer time as part of a grant’s in-kind match. However, it is just one thread within a colorful fabric.

Our organizations are complex and multidimensional. Our volunteers collaborate with paid staff in unique and creative ways. Our collective opportunity then is to tell a fuller story about our teams' dynamic work by expanding our notions and reports of volunteer value in meaningful ways.

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Go to the profile of Corina Pintea
over 2 years ago

Thank you very much for this perspective on volunteer impact and the need to reflect this much more broadly! A very insightful article!

Go to the profile of Sue Carter Kahl
over 2 years ago

Thanks, Corina! I'm glad you found it valuable.