"You Get What You Pay For"

By Susan J. Ellis

Society holds contradictory attitudes about money that affect volunteering in many ways. It’s worth exploring some of the most common notions.

#1 - Money Equals Seriousness; More Money Equals Better Quality

In the last month (and for different reasons), a number of my clients have offered training sessions at no cost to their community, though they did require pre-registration. As always happens when something is presented for free, despite having registered in advance, about 20% of the people did not show up (though some called to cancel). Not only was this disappointing to the organizers, but in one case it wasted the cost of extra lunches and meant that several people on a waiting list were cheated out of the chance to attend. In debriefing the experience, we all agreed that “few take an event seriously if they haven’t paid even a token fee to reserve a spot.”

What are the implications about how volunteers are perceived if value is assigned mainly when money is involved? The common wisdom of “you get what you pay for” also equates the highest cost with the best product – while denigrating less expensive and free items.

A variation on this theme is “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth paying for it,” or the labor union position that any important work ought to be a paying job.

#2 - “Free” Attracts

On the other hand, “free” is one of the most powerful words in the marketing lexicon. Advertisers use this four-letter word liberally as a way to get customer attention, prompt a response, and ultimately lead to sales. People love to get something for free.

But do they value it?

#3 - Unpaid Workers Must Care More

Despite the developed world’s love affair with making money, we also disdain mercenaries, “money-hungry” people, and those who “will do anything if the price is right.” And we consider heroes and heroines to be those who do something important or risky for others, disregarding their own needs and costs. That’s why everyone is eager to identify with the word “volunteer” during a natural disaster or other crisis: it labels the doer as acting selflessly.

Many years ago, before my career in volunteerism, I worked for a time as a social worker trainee in the family and child division of Philadelphia’s human services department. One day I was handed a case of a 15-year-old who had run away. When I went to see her in the temporary shelter, she was very hostile and wouldn’t look at or speak to me. Finally, in desperation, I asked, “What would it take for you to talk with me?” She smiled slyly, crossed her arms on her chest, and said, “show me I’m not just another case to you and come back after 5:00 PM.” So I did, and it totally broke down the wall between us.

This powerful incident taught me a number of things. First, some recipients of service distrust paid workers as only being helpful because it’s their job to be so. Second, the appearance of caring could be conveyed by doing something during unpaid time. I say appearance because my young client did not realize that I might have been earning overtime pay by coming back in the evening! (I did not, by the way.)

#4 - Paid Workers Are Legit

On the other side of the coin, however, introducing oneself as a volunteer can suddenly close doors. For years, we taught volunteers in my program at the Philadelphia Family Court to use their position titles when seeking information on the phone. Whenever a newcomer forgot and said, “I’m a volunteer with the Family Court and I’m trying to find out ________,” invariably the person being contacted responded with something like “can you put that in writing for me?” When this happened, we told the volunteer to try again in a few hours, this time starting the call with, “hello, I’m a Resource Finder with the Court and _____________.” Almost 100% of the time, the second call obtained immediate results!

Why? Because “volunteer” conveys “no authority,” while a title does. Think about it. When someone calls you and identifies him or herself with a title, have you ever thought to ask, “are you paid?” Once again, appearance over substance.

#5 - Pay Has Limits and Money Taints

Colleagues often extol the work of volunteers in their organizations with the praise,
“You couldn’t pay someone to do this.” I suspect this represents a line of thought such as: this work is so sensitive, emotionally draining, or otherwise demanding that only someone who is motivated by caring would do it eagerly – and someone else would demand extraordinary pay to do it otherwise. This mission-over-money belief is also why many in the public believe that workers for nonprofit organizations ought to accept low pay or at least not be highly concerned about wages. To seek no money at all is simply taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion. I’m not exactly sure whether this reasoning makes sense, but it is fraught with attitudes about both paid and unpaid workers, isn’t it?

Additionally, we expect members of a nonprofit board of directors to have an “arm’s length” relationship from an organization’s funds. While the stockholders of a business want to know that members of the for-profit board will share in the rewards or losses caused by their decisions, nonprofit board members are expected to be objective “trustees.” By deriving no personal monetary gain, nonprofit boards assure the public and donors that the organization’s mission is being upheld and its money properly spent.

Perceptions Affect Our Work

I am certain that every Hot Topic reader has encountered all of the attitudes I’ve just described. Most people are not even aware of their contradictory beliefs about the power and consequences of money, nor of how such beliefs affect the way they think about or act toward volunteers. For example, if an executive feels that paying for something gives it worth, don’t be surprised that s/he undervalues volunteers. At the same time, in the same agency, if clients sense that paid staff are providing service mainly as a job requirement, volunteers will quickly be more trusted.

As leaders of volunteer involvement, we are not going to change common wisdom, even if it is far from wise. However, we do need to recognize the many perspectives on unpaid work, whether these operate overtly or subliminally. The quicker we recognize a negative attitude, the more we will be able to counter it. But how?

Two approaches I have used are diversion (such as instructing the Family Court volunteers to use their titles and not mention the word “volunteer”) and education (explaining that a paid staff member can be just as motivated by caring as a volunteer, while a volunteer can be just as professional as an employee). I also really try to avoid the word “free” in relation to volunteers, since there are costs on all sides (if you need an explanation, see the 2003 report by the Grantmaker Forum on Community & National Service, “The Cost of a Volunteer”). 

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