Know what you have to offer - the "costs" and benefits of volunteering

An increasing number of organizations are recognizing the added value of volunteer involvement. Service programs are more sophisticated and volunteers are being regarded as customers to be satisfied, not just community persons to share the workload. As emphasized by Fischer and Cole,

[Volunteer Managers] need to satisfy the interests and needs of prospective volunteers, who, like discriminating consumers, can choose from a multitude of alternatives in the volunteer marketplace. Simply having a worthwhile cause and meaningful volunteer activities to offer are no longer sufficient.

Source: Fisher, James C. and Katherine Cole. Leadership and Management of Volunteer Programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993, p. 81. To attract and hold volunteers, you need to determine what you have of value to exchange with the volunteer for time contributed. Specifically, you need to know:

The Benefits of Volunteering: why people serve and what they gain through volunteer service

Many factors motivate people to volunteer and individuals may decide to serve for several of these reasons. People may be moved to volunteer by the cause or client being served, the type of work being performed, the opportunities provided to meet new people - or all of the above! People may decide to volunteer to:

  • improve the quality of life of members of the community
  • do something useful or enjoyable
  • support something in which they believe
  • because it's fun
  • explore new career options and network
  • receive professional experience or training
  • maintain skills during an interruption in paid employment
  • acquire new skills to enhance their marketability
  • fulfill the service requirement of a club, school, church
  • complete mandated community restitution requirements
  • be creative, solve problems, perform challenging work
  • make new friends and affiliations, join peers, belong to a group or community
  • repay what they have received
  • develop and grow personally, cultivate new interests
  • contribute to a cause that is important to them
  • explore their own strengths
  • relieve boredom and monotony
  • feel like they are needed

While some volunteer positions may clearly relate to these concerns, others positions may require that you articulate the relationship between the work and the benefit to either the consumer or the volunteer. For example, the fact that well maintained clothes build the self-esteem and pride of the client may be an important piece of motivating information for a group that comes to sew and mend on a regular basis.

The Costs of Volunteering: what the volunteer position requires of potential applicants (time and resources)

Like the benefits of volunteering, the perceived "costs" of volunteering can vary according to the individual involved. Whereas "time away from family" may be viewed as a 'cost' to some individuals, a stay-at-home caregiver may perceive "time away from family" as a benefit. With that caveat in mind, some of the potential 'costs' of volunteering include:

  • Time away from family and friends, hobbies and career-related pursuits
  • Travel, parking, childcare, meals and other expenses
  • Expenses related to the volunteer position (gasoline and mileage for the delivery of hot meals; xeroxing of instructional materials for tutoring sessions; the purchase of boots for use in trail maintenance programs; and so forth)

In most successful volunteer initiatives, the benefits of volunteering outweigh the costs for both the organization and the volunteer.