“Not everything that can be counted counts, and
not everything that counts can be counted.”
William Bruce Cameron
The path ends at a sign informing users that their lap doesn’t count unless they hit the target. I never hit the target. It’s a principle. I know that I have walked or skated the distance; I don’t need a symbolic gesture to prove it.
That target came to mind the other day when I read a new report by the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA). MAVA hosted listening sessions with Minnesota volunteers who identify as Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color. Several participants shared that they weren’t interested in hitting the volunteer version of this target by logging their service hours (p. 14). It felt like an extra and unnecessary step.
The MAVA responses echoed the ones I received during a small research study about a program where volunteers drive homebound seniors to appointments. A volunteer tracked his driving hours even though it wasn’t relevant to him personally. He presumed the organization needed these counts for a funder or executive. Interestingly, when I asked one of those executives how she felt about volunteer hours, she wondered what those hours really meant—if they were helping the organization meet its mission or if they represented a drain on staff time and resources (yikes). One of the volunteer administrators at this organization later whispered in a confessional tone that she didn’t really care about tracking hours.
Which got me thinking: what if we stopped counting volunteer hours?
Your Values are Showing
Given the nearly sacrosanct position (and prevalence) of reporting volunteer hours, it feels subversive to question the practice. Volunteer hours are an “industry standard”, typically communicated with numbers of volunteers and their financial value. As such, they offer an air of legitimacy to agencies that track them.
Here’s the thing: if I asked you about your agency’s success or impact, I bet you would not tell me how many employees work there, the number of hours they clocked last year, and the payroll budget. Yet, we trot out the equivalent of those figures to talk about volunteerism.
Reporting volunteer hours is a telling practice that communicates what we value. It reveals, for example, that we prize volunteer quantity. That we celebrate volunteer volume.
Showcasing hours and volunteer numbers also exposes a few assumptions. It assumes that having volunteers is good and having more volunteers is better. That volunteer quantity is the same thing as (or matters more than) volunteer quality. That all volunteer time is well spent. That an agency is “good” because it had volunteers at all. Or perhaps that a company is a “good” corporate citizen because it deployed employee volunteers (another source of legitimacy).
Of course, if you have worked with volunteers for a while, you know these assumptions do not hold up. A Volunteer Director friend assured me that she could make just about any goal she was given for volunteer recruitment. She also confided that higher numbers made it harder to ensure a meaningful encounter for the volunteer or her nonprofit. Another nonprofit agency had high volunteer numbers because they were a well-known place to serve. They also burned through folks so quickly that few people came back after one shift. A CSR Manager left a fundraising walk frustrated that the employee volunteers he recruited to serve on a Saturday morning spent most of the time standing around because there wasn’t enough work. Yet, he could still include the hours on a monthly report.
If Not Hours, Then What?
In the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about our tendency to swap a question that is hard to answer with one that is easier to answer. What’s more: we usually aren’t aware that we have made a substitution. In volunteerism, that looks like sidestepping the difficult matter of capturing volunteer impact by instead focusing on counting volunteers. We accept a proxy or substitute of volunteer impact for the real thing. And as difficult as it may be to get volunteers to submit their hours, it still seems easier than trying to capture the often intangible and hard-to-count contributions that volunteers make. The problem occurs when we stop wrestling with the hard questions and stick to the easy ones.
So let’s play a game. What would happen if we stopped reporting volunteer hours as a standard (and maybe crutch) of volunteer value?
Taking away this statistic opens up space for alternatives. What would we want to learn about the volunteer experience instead? If we didn’t ask volunteers to flatten their rich, meaningful, challenging efforts to a unit of time, what else would they tell us about their experience? What would we share with our partners and donors and community members? How might it change the nature of the volunteer experience and the nature of volunteer engagement?
For starters, we can revisit the (limited) research. The MAVA session participants recommended prioritizing the community being supported by volunteers over the organization or its goals (p. 18). In my study, the volunteer driver said he cared more about creating a courteous space for his riders to feel safe and welcome. He appreciated the relationships that bloomed with repeat riders. A staff member at that agency talked about the dignity that riders felt from being able to continue living independently. Those experiences are hard to count but also are closer to answering the hard question about volunteer impact.
What if we stopped asking volunteers to report their hours and instead invited them to share about if or how the volunteer experience changed them? What changes they observed while serving? Why they came to serve and what they learned in the process?
If Volunteer Administrators and Corporate Social Responsibility Managers didn’t spend their time hustling to get more volunteer hours, how might that free up time for cultivating relationships that support retention or developing partnerships that last beyond a one-day project? What if they treated volunteer hours as a by-product of thoughtful community engagement rather than a goal in and of itself?
As usual, I don’t have the all answers. But asking these questions is an important first step in reconsidering our relationship with volunteer hours and what counts as volunteer value.
Hours and Beyond
In the meantime, I don’t want to abandon all of you who must track volunteer hours; I get it. The Corporation for National and Community Service or your funder may not be interested in the potential absurdity of reducing your complex, beautiful, messy, and human work to a tally of hours. In these cases, the key is to be clear about what hours do and do not represent. Reporting hours can show the scope of your work. It can demonstrate how much the community is involved in your agency as volunteers. It can illustrate how much people power it takes to complete a task or project. What reporting hours does not do is reflect volunteer results or accomplishments.
That said, just because you keep reporting hours doesn’t mean you can’t ask your own provocative questions, challenge incorrect assumptions, or clarify language. Have a boss that sets your goal by adding 10% more hours each year? Talk to them about if those hours are meaningful and productive for the agency, the community, and the volunteers. If they are not, how might you rightsize goals or even frame volunteer numbers as a by-product rather than a target? Discuss how having the right volunteers in the right roles might mean that hours go down because the volunteers are more efficient or effective. Help others understand your context and why numbers fluctuate over time, particularly as the pandemic requires ongoing adaptation. Teach what matters beyond volunteer volume.
Being lauded for high numbers but retention is awful or the volunteers aren’t a fit for what the community needs? Start a conversation about creating meaningful volunteer experiences or adjusting recruiting strategies to align with the kind of volunteers you need. Clarify and share expectations of volunteers so they know what they are getting into in advance. Explore what would help staff or volunteer leads in nurturing the volunteers on their teams. Ask program participants what they appreciate about the volunteers who support or engage with them. Weave their insights into your storytelling.
Most importantly, help others make the distinction between volunteer hours and volunteer value (or worth, which is a fuller term). Encourage them to look beyond an artificial common denominator to the uncommon aspects about your agency’s work and the ways that volunteers contribute. Push back on the pressure to fit everything in a box that can be counted. Invite others to see your community and its members as people rather than widgets.
And when all else fails, remember poet Mary Oliver’s assertion: “What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.” Or counted.