Save a Life, Win a Car! When Do Incentives to Volunteer Cross the Line?

By Susan J. Ellis

Colleague and friend Lacretia Bacon, who coordinates volunteers for the City of Phoenix, initiated this month’s Hot Topic, with the following e-mail and attached link:

New donor prospecting seems to be climbing to a new level.....Look at this: Blood Drive Flyer

My contention is that sports teams and their "volunteer" charity projects (supposedly done by their foundations) have raised the bar and made it harder to recruit volunteers because of all the perks they offer.  Now it seems to be spreading as "cause related marketing" is rewarding people with chances at cars, etc.

Perhaps a topic of discussion is how this will change the volunteer pool. Perhaps the diehard volunteers who want to give back to someone (an organization) that has helped them (direct connection) will continue without perks, but the casual or more transitory volunteer that we thought we had a chance to "hook" will be siphoned off in campaigns like this one.

Thanks for raising this issue, Lacretia – it certainly forces us to consider what we really mean when we say a volunteer isn’t “paid.” Heaven knows I’m happy that we have advanced way past the days when we argued that getting academic credit or being reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses meant someone was not a “pure” volunteer. (For anyone new to the field who didn’t know about this debate, be glad you missed it!) But I agree that there’s an invisible line out there somewhere that divides unpaid from paid that makes me very uncomfortable to cross.

This is truly a percolating hot topic popping up in various places. In an amazing coincidence, Andy Fryar on the other side of the globe in Australia has also written his July 2005 Hot Topic for OzVPM on almost the same theme, based on another American program, the “10,000 Hours Show” in Iowa where the only people who can get into a special concert are those who volunteered at least 10 hours in a community agency. It’s well worth your while to read Andy’s cogent remarks.

I don’t have answers or even many hard-and-fast beliefs on this subject. But I do have a series of questions that deserve consideration. Let’s see what we all think as I try to outline the issues involved here.

Thank You Gifts

It’s probably safe to say that we all believe in thank you gifts for volunteers, at least of the “token” variety. We also believe in giving volunteers items that they need to do a project, such as an identifying tee-shirt. But how much do we have to spend before the small gift becomes a substantial reward with cash value? More to the point here:

  • Do we ever see thank you gifts as “payment” of some sort or as an incentive to do more volunteering?

  • Do we feel differently if the gift is a true surprise at the end of a period of service versus if everyone knows from the start that the big gift or costly perk is coming? (This is Lacretia’s point about things like golf tournaments, in which at least some volunteers get everything from high-quality golf gear to expensive meals.)

  • Does it matter if an organization buys the gifts from its own funds as opposed to all items being donated by others? The monetary value is the same to the volunteer, but does our comfortable level change based on who is paying the bill?

  • What about “deferred gratification” types of recognition that can lead to future profit, such as advancing a career, writing a thesis based on the experience, or developing new client referrals?


A growing number of organizations, particularly those who perceive there to be a critical shortage of volunteers, have been discussing whether tangible “incentives” will win a “yes, I’ll do it” response from prospective volunteers. Lacretia found another piece of synchronistic evidence this week when she discovered a recruitment incentive advertised on by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America that has the following pitch (no longer online, 2014):

One volunteer through their service on this assignment will earn a new MINI COOPER car, donated by EZFIND. Other volunteers may also earn a new LAPTOP or IPOD or one of a number of other incentives to volunteer as a MS EZFIND ENVOY.

This is the marketplace approach to recruitment and it presupposes a number of beliefs that I question:

  1. Money (or a big prize) is an irresistible motivator.

  2. Most volunteering is interchangeable, so it’s necessary to use external incentives to convince people to work for this cause over that one.

  3. Low-income people, students, seniors on a fixed income, etc. can’t afford to volunteer and it’s wrong or insensitive to ask them to do so.

These assumptions reflect a rather low opinion of human beings in general and of volunteers in particular. My biggest issue here is that the people who propose incentive plans are often those who don’t know the first thing about how to create volunteer opportunities that people will actually be attracted to do, nor how to conduct an effective recruitment campaign. But I am not necessarily against all incentives. The questions I’d raise here are:

  • Is part of the problem our fear that the wealthier organizations will therefore always get the volunteers because smaller, grassroots groups cannot afford to compete? Lacretia raises this concern [and speaks to it more fully in her response (below) to this essay].
  • Do incentives all have to be costly? For example, in a performing arts organization, giving volunteers the chance to spend time with the artists personally might be seen as a special perk, but doesn’t need extra cash. Here the incentive is exclusivity – getting something no one else can. Does this trouble us as much as cash gifts?

  • What about the “chance” to win the car? Since only one person can actually get the big prize, does this put all the volunteers’ motives into question? Is everyone a “volunteer” until one of them wins the car and transmutes into…what?

  • Again, what if the incentive doesn’t cost the organization anything? I assume that car for the blood drive was donated, as a lovely dinner for two or a crystal vase might be. Does it matter? What if the donor of the item gave it specifically as leverage to get even greater help for the cause? What if it works?

In the real world, there is a continuum of rewards, moving from a heartfelt thank you through small token gifts through larger gifts, and ultimately into genuine compensation for time. At what point does something stop being simple recognition and become an incentive instead? When does an incentive become profit? When does a stipend become a lousy wage? When is a volunteer no longer a volunteer?

Or is all of this irrelevant to the biggest question of all: What will encourage the most people to participate in important community work? If incentives work (and we don’t necessarily know they do), do the results justify the means?

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