Volunteering in For-Profit Settings: Exploitation or Value Added?

By Susan J. Ellis

I’ve recently received several e-mails about what happens (or doesn’t) to volunteer services when a formerly-nonprofit organization is merged into a for-profit service provider. As we see more and more hospitals, nursing homes and other human service providers move from nonprofit to for-profit status, the question is growing in importance. Those that oppose the use of volunteers in for-profit settings take the position that volunteers should only be asked to donate their time to organizations benefiting the public good, not to add to the profit of stockholders. They believe involving volunteers in a business is a form of exploitation. I disagree with this position and feel there is nothing inherently wrong with volunteers being used in a business setting.

The Rationale
There is quite a bit of precedent for volunteer involvement in businesses that have a purely commercial purpose. For example, companies of all types routinely provide placements for student interns. The "exchange" of experience for the student's work is considered legitimate (but non-cash) compensation. And let’s not forget volunteer programs designed expressly to recruit volunteers to help businesses succeed, such as the Small Business Administration's SCORE (Senior Corps of Retired Executives), which provides volunteers with business expertise to work with new and minority business owners. If volunteers can be asked to increase the profit-making potential of manufacturing, sales, and service companies, why is it far-fetched to recruit volunteers to participate in businesses providing human services?

No business (or nonprofit, for that matter) is ever going to provide the personal touch that volunteers offer to individual patients or clients. I call this the "luxury of focus," in which volunteers can spend as much time as is necessary with someone in need. Employees always have to divide their time equitably over a whole patient floor or full caseload. Whether successful grant writing or earned profit is the bottom line, much of the work volunteers do would never be in the budget anyway.

A proprietary setting, particularly if a new owner of a formerly-nonprofit organization, would be well-advised to develop a written statement of philosophy about the role of volunteers. I give this advice to nonprofits, too, but I feel that businesses need to emphasize that their commitment to volunteers is not based on hoping the company will be able to spend less (or hire fewer employees), but rather on the desire to strengthen services to the agency's consumers. And then they ought to live up to that statement!

"Exploitation" is in the eye of the beholder. Is it evil to knowingly and willingly barter time and effort in exchange for learning and the sense of contribution? Is it wrong to place a higher value on the needs of the recipient of service than on who owns the setting? Who is to judge? 

The key to avoiding the ethical pitfalls of misusing donated time is to be thoughtful about why, when and how volunteers are recruited to help an organization. It is not necessarily wrong to ask someone to support a for-profit setting and it is not invariably right to ask someone to do anything at all for a nonprofit setting. It is important that any recruits be informed about the type of organization inviting their help. But, in the last analysis, the choice should always belong to the volunteer.

So What’s New?
The number of for-profit conversions and openings is proliferating, with all indications that this trend will continue. And, as so often happens with volunteering, the subject of the implications of this for volunteers is simply overlooked--with not-so-simple consequences. For example, although the American Hospital Association has well-established guidelines and standards for Volunteer Services Departments, nothing has been issued updating this material for either the changes occurring in hospital ownership/management or in recognition of the evolving trends affecting who volunteers and what they do. (See my appendix for an example of this situation.)

For-profit nursing homes, particularly the many new assisted care facilities popping up all over, rarely research the question of volunteers at all. Generally they assume they “shouldn’t” involve volunteers and that’s the end of it. What this means is that a population in genuine need of the extra attention volunteers provide is denied that attention. Of course, since these facilities do not understand what’s going on in volunteerism today, students might be welcomed (or something called “intergenerational programs”), but in limited roles.

Welfare reform is also adding a new twist. If we are going to support people as they move from public assistance to paying jobs, we will have to provide mentors and other sorts of volunteer involvement--perhaps even in the workplace. How will we describe a volunteer assignment that is created by a nonprofit, targeted at an individual, but affecting a profit-making employer’s success in business?

So the questions this month are:

  1. Are you working in a for-profit setting that involves volunteers? From the start or as a result of a take-over of a nonprofit? What issues has this raised for you, for management, and for volunteers?
  2. Do you agree with my argument above? Disagree? Have something to add?
  3. Does your local Volunteer Center have a clearly-articulated position on this subject so that they can be proactive in reaching out to these new service providers? Has your DOVIA or other volunteer-related association invited staff from for-profit companies to join or even to attend workshops?
  4. What strategies should we employ to urge government and private standard setters, such as JACHO, to update their policies about volunteers?

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Anonymous, Thousand Oaks, Ca, USA

Ok, here's the deal on hospitals. Hospitals are huge non-profit corporations, They aren't little mom and pops, and it irks me to no end that volunteers have taken away paying jobs for lets say, single under-educated moms as Dept Receptionists. Meanwhile the big shots get bonuses for cost savings, while the volunteers get a free lunch, a pat on the back, and a feel good euphoria.

If you're reading to patients, or giving comfort to families, that's one thing, but taking away a paying job, and the lobby is getting an expensive makeover, while your soft heart and equally soft brain (read that as dumb) get a feeling of narcissism, well I personally think you're a fool, and trust me, they are working you for who you are. Most hospitals (and religion theatres) don't pay property taxes either. Wake up my little puppets.

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, United States

You are certainly welcome to your opinion, but I find it interesting that you opted to post as "anonymous." You are taking the most negative view possible about volunteers and what they do -- whether in hospitals or anywhere else.  Volunteers almost never "save" any organization money in the long run, nor can an employee be "replaced" by a corps of very part-time volunteers. And given the countless options available for volunteering, it's insulting to call people who choose to serve "puppets." 

Submitted on
Mary Quain , Volunteer, Nextdoor, Minnetonka/MN, USA

I've been volunteering a good deal of time in the past few years to Nextdoor, a social media platform designed for members at the neighborhood level. I've enjoyed much of that time and met some lovely people, however, I'm about to throw in the towel for volunteering as a "Neighborhood Lead." Leads are the people who monitor and moderate content posted by other members, including educating them on how Nextdoor works, enforcing "Guidelines" governing the content and generally providing nearly all of the company's customer relations function. We are offered very little support or even communication about behind the scenes changes being made as the company evolves, thus handicapping our efforts.

Because Nextdoor is for-profit and currently funded by venture capital, I have not been able to find out a relative dollar amount for volunteer time and how that total fits into its business model. They have been chasing an IPO for over a year, all the while relying heavily on volunteers to do their heavy lifting. How does this affect the company's valuation?

Is there a way to find out what share of their true operating expenses is being cancelled out by volunteer work?


Submitted on
Cara Thenot, Publications and Social Media Director, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia/PA, USA

Hello Mary.  Thanks for your sharing your situation.  Since Susan Ellis is taking some time away from writing due to health concerns, I am going to pass on your question to another associate on our team of consultants.  Best of luck, Cara Thenot

Submitted on
Barbara MacRobie, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

This in regard to a historically-themed festival that was founded as a 501c3 but recently acquired by a for-profit. When a 501c3, the festival used the services of reenactors like me as volunteers. The for-profit still wants our services for free, and since we enjoy pursuing our hobby, we don't object to that. The festival has offered us a contract calling us independent contractors who are paid $0. The contract includes provisions such as a year-and-a-half-long non-compete clauses and statements that if we do not provide all the hours of free service the contract stipulates, that is a breach of contract and they can sue us. The Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division person with whom I briefly spoke told me that the Fair Labor Standards Acts actually prohibits for-profit private sector businesses from using volunteers, and therefore the festival is trying to get around that with the unpaid independent contractor terminology. So I'm very confused by Ms. Ellis's original post.

Submitted on
Anonymous, Calgary, Canada

You CAN NOT have volunteers in Canada for a "for Profit" store, institution etc it is the law. Unfortunately,,, a volunteer can call the labor board and the for profit business will have to pay them back pay at the going minimum rate. This has happened in Lethbridge and other areas. No contract to volunteer is binding. It would be thrown out in court because it is considered slave labor or misleading and illegally using the labor of a human.
There is only one program through high school where a student is allowed to volunteer at "for Profit" businesses for work experience. There are many rules and stipulations to agreeing to this too. I believe in protecting the innocent,,, but i also see here that we have even lost freedom to volunteer!