The Money Factor in Volunteer Management

By Susan J. Ellis

It’s income tax season in the United States and I’ve been busy with financial reporting. So it seems appropriate to devote this month’s Hot Topic to money.  Certain financial questions seem to surface all the time, so I'm going to air the two big ones here:

1. What should a director of volunteers be paid?

If you look at any of the salary surveys done in recent years for the nonprofit field (and I’m sure there are similar ones for government and for-profits, too), you’ll immediately notice one of two things: either the position of director of volunteers is not even included in the study, or we are at the bottom of the list in salary averages. The real problem with these sorts of surveys is that they perpetuate inequities. So an executive who is uncertain as to what to offer to a new coordinator of volunteers looks at the study and, with relief, offers a low figure because “that’s what this field earns.”

In truth, all the figures are open to question. As has been noted many times before, it is hard--and probably foolish--to draw conclusions from a survey of so many disparate types of organizations. Hospitals will pay all staff members more than a rape crisis center ever can. A neighborhood drop-in center will have a pay scale far lower than a major museum. This is true for every position, across the board.

Which is why, in my opinion, the only valid criterion for determining the appropriate pay for a director of volunteers is whether his or her salary is equivalent to the salary of other similar-level managers in that specific agency. So the real question is not one of dollars. It's at what level of administration is this position valued? If the director of development earns twice what the director of volunteers is paid, or if volunteer leadership is paid on a par with clerical staff, there’s a clear message sent. But if the

director of volunteers receives a salary on the level of other managers, department heads, or other essential staff, then the amount is right--whatever that amount is, for everyone.  

2. Should volunteers be given money as an incentive?

I want to go on record as saying that I do not believe it is necessary to use money as an “incentive” to get people to volunteer. In fact, in most cases, I find this to be a cop-out approach used by people who never tried to recruit volunteers, but assumed it to be impossible because they couldn’t imagine anyone (especially young or poor) would be willing to help.

Please understand: I DO favor reimbursement for any out-of-pocket expenses and any type of support that allows people to give their time as a donation but not to also have to spend money they may not have for the privilege of volunteering. I am speaking here of approaches such as “we give everyone $25 a week” or some other very low pay.

First, be aware that this sort of scheme is not seen by the IRS as reimbursement for expenses. Because it is pre-determined, paid to everyone, and given regardless of proof of expenses, this type of payment must be reported as taxable income to the volunteer.

Second, the amount offered is usually so low it verges on the insulting and begins to cause confusion in their role with employees.  If you have the cash, buy something meaningful with it--or pay for conference registrations and travel, or some work-related type of perk. In fact, the real question is why so few organizations budget for the continuing education of its volunteers. It is possible to have an arrangement with a volunteer that, in exchange for the cost of sending her or him to a state or national conference, s/he will promise to continue as a volunteer for at least a year or will reimburse the agency for the expense. After all, this is routinely

done with employees for their college or graduate school costs.

For those of you who are in an all-volunteer setting, by the way, this is not necessarily one of those ”us and them” topics that divides agency-based program leaders from volunteer officers. Your big question is: Why do we think it’s “skimming off the top” to allocate funds to support our volunteer members?

It is my opinion that something as simple as paying for some hourly clerical help would make the recruitment of volunteer chairpeople so much easier. It is not a defeat to acknowledge that it may be harder to get someone to do the “grunt work” as a volunteer than to do the jobs with higher status. Or what about paying for qualified child care while members are doing their volunteer work? The expense of these kinds of outlays would leverage service of far greater monetary value.

Now I’m going to make a suggestion that will seem contradictory. Sometimes a “token” honorarium allows a great volunteer to justify accepting an extremely time-consuming position. For example, if the volunteer registrar for all organization activities logs ten to twenty hours a week for six months, offering $500 towards expenses does not begin to “pay” for the time, but acknowledges the extraordinary effort. (Yes, this will probably have to reported as taxable income by the volunteer.) The difference between this approach and money to all volunteers as a sweetening of the pot to convince them to sign up is that this sort of honorarium would only be offered for those accepting major responsibilities requiring extensive work--and where being a volunteer may actually make holding a full-time job difficult. Ivan Scheier discusses this idea creatively in his book, When Everyone’s a Volunteer.

OK. Your turn. What do you think about these and other money issues? And may all your returns bring refunds....!

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