Money is No Object

By Susan J. Ellis

It's an interesting thing about money. It's important and everyone needs it, but it can also be a hindrance. For organizations and even individuals, money brings obligations such as the need for stewardship and fiscal responsibility, or accountability to the source of the funds. Money can also set limits. Once you've promised how you are going to use the money, you may have little flexibility in changing your course or methods. We all know the problems that arise when, in trying to get money, an organization develops a project simply to attract a funder rather than doing what is most necessary and finding a funder to support that.

Perhaps the most unique thing about working with volunteers is our perspective on cash. We don't need it, or at least we don't need as much of it as other departments do. Of course we know that there are costs for and to volunteers but there isn't the same level of spending that is seen in other parts of an organization. This financial freedom allows us a different approach to the subject of funding. Let me explain.

  • We are the only department with the ability to see something that needs to be done, think of a way to deal with it, and implement the idea--as long as we can find volunteers willing and able to do it. It's not that we "save" money or that volunteers are "free," it's that we are able to by-pass money by taking an alternate route. That's a remarkable thing.


  • '"Time is money" is correct. There is a monetary value to the time volunteers contribute (to them and to our organizations). So why shouldn't people be able to choose which form(s) of contribution they wish to make? We unconditionally accept cash-why do we have so many concerns about accepting time? Furthermore, isn't it wonderful that volunteering allows everyone to support your cause, not just the wealthy?
  • Rather than looking for funds on the basis of an idea, it is safer to test it first. Maybe our original proposal has weaknesses, or is missing something. Maybe we are not asking for enough money. Volunteers ought to be seen consciously as the organization's experimental lab. Pilot an idea and see how it works. Engage these volunteers in assessing and refining the concepts. Then go ahead and find money to offer the service fully.
  • It takes time to find money. What if the need is immediate? We can recruit volunteers who recognize the crisis and are willing to start the work now.
  • Money follows success, not the other way around. Passion, commitment and hard work start action. If the results are visible, funders will jump on the bandwagon. Who better to act passionately than volunteers? If you want to consider this idea, read Ivan Scheier's new book, Making Dreams Come True without Money, Might or Miracles -you'll find it very inspiring.

I believe that reluctance to involve volunteers often stems from a fear that, if volunteers are successful, future funders will conclude that the organization does not require money. We need to battle that misconception. We know that, historically, it is volunteers who act on needs before anyone else. Over and over again we see the pattern of successful pioneering by volunteers leading eventually to solicitation of funds and the hiring of paid staff. Further, volunteers themselves are the most vocal advocates for needing volunteers and money. They understand why consistent staff time and attention are necessary to success-and they are happy to tell prospective funders what they think.

So this month I'd like to learn about YOUR experiences in by-passing funding with volunteers.

  • What project did you start or accomplish with volunteers specifically as an alternative to waiting for money?
  • Have you asked volunteers to experiment with any new ideas prior to launching a full service?
  • What were you able to do without money that surprised you?
  • What were you able to do without money of which you are most proud?

It may be worth noting that our mindset regarding alternatives to cash ought to extend to other aspects of our work as well. We ought to be the people who see opportunities for barter, in-kind services, collaboration for multiple effects, and ways to get things for free. It's a perspective that says: "If we remove money from the equation, how would we get it done?" That's why the Internet ought to excite volunteer project leaders!

Instead of apologizing for how much we can get done with volunteers even in the absence of money, we ought to be celebrating this special resource.

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