Should We Cap the Number of Hours a Volunteer May Serve Each Week?

By Susan J. Ellis

Two weeks ago I received this very interesting e-mail from an American organization that is an exemplar in its extensive involvement of volunteers and has long served as a role model for best volunteer management practices. So I paid attention to their question:

How many volunteer hours are too much? My concern is two-fold, volunteer burn-out and supplanting paid staff. I've poured over U.S. and my state’s department of labor information, Googled for hours...and found nothing.

Here at our organization, our expectation for a minimum weekly commitment is 4 hours and an annual commitment of one year. So we've got the minimum nailed down and it works well for us. We have a paid summer intern program and a college practicum for enrolled college students who can volunteer 8-24 hours per week, per semester.

It's the other extreme that's worrisome. Outside the parameters of an internship or college practicum, we believe that more than 16 hours per week as a volunteer begins to look like a job. A situation ripe for exploitation – or a labor grievance down the road. What’s making this timely for us is receiving volunteer applications from currently unemployed specialists in the same profession as our paid staff.

Turns out I had lots of thoughts on a suggested maximum number of weekly volunteer hours. I could only think of one situation in which it made sense and said:

New volunteers may start off gung-ho and promise many hours before they know what they will experience. So I like the practice of setting an initial limit of maximum time until the situation evolves and looks to be successful. But once it’s proven mutually beneficial to allow someone to donate their skills as intensively as they wish, a cap seems really foolish.

In considering my answer, I realized that I have never written about this particular issue and neither has anyone else, so it’s time to do so!

A Multi-Layered Issue

As with so much else in the volunteer world, the seemingly simple question of “should we cap the number of hours a volunteer is permitted to serve” is anything but simplistic. There is not a clear, definitive answer because of the inherent diversity in what types of activities unpaid workers do, and who they are. Here are several examples of volunteer positions in which the volunteers work full time or even more hours:

  • Many types of intensive volunteer efforts require extensive hours. The Peace Corps and United Nations Volunteers (both with living allowances but no pay), archeological digs (where people even pay to participate!), religious missions, medical field trips, and overseas Habit for Humanity building projects – just to name a few – don’t cap the time they will accept. Of course, these are usually not a paid staff vs. volunteers situation, in that the work tends to be created specifically for volunteers only. But all prove that volunteers can be effective working hard and long.
  • During times of natural disasters and other crises, no one watches the clock for paid workers or for volunteers. Everyone works until the emergency is over.
  • As noted in the e-mail, many organizations allow college students to do school “practicums” to receive academic credit but no financial remuneration, as opposed to paid “internships.” While this particular organization caps such students at 24 hours per week, I know of many programs that make such service full-time for a semester. (How was the magic figure of 24 hours determined? Seems pretty arbitrary, as does 16 hours for other volunteers.) Because it is couched as a school requirement, lasts only a set number of weeks, and commonly involves young people, service-learning is generally acceptable and rarely perceived as threatening to the job security of paid staff.

    Of course, right now the for-profit world, especially big corporations and television stations, is under fire for abusing unpaid internships, so stay turned! (See the 2010 Blue Avocado article, “Legalities of Nonprofit Internships,” for various considerations in paid, stipended, and volunteer internships. Among other things, it reminds us that the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act includes this bizarre requirement for unpaid internships: “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded.” Maybe that will be another Hot Topic this year!)

  • New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg does not accept the salary provided for his job. Neither did California Governor Arnold Schwarzeneger, President Kennedy or Vice-President Rockefeller. So they all worked full-time (and more) without pay. Is this extensive volunteering OK simply because they could afford to do so?

Do We Worry about Too Much Donated Money?

When a question arises about volunteers giving time and skills, it is always revealing to see if our reaction changes when the same question is asked about financial donors. What would we answer to the question: “Should we cap the amount of money a donor wants to give us?” Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Can you imagine not being thrilled at ever higher amounts of cash being offered? The more the better. So why do we raise concerns when someone wants to give more time to a nonprofit they care about?

One reason may be that spending money takes less effort than managing volunteers. Donation checks can be cashed and used. It’s quite a bit harder to make sure donated services are welcomed and productive. In fairness, few organizations can effectively support endless volunteer participation to make sure the effort is successful both for the mission and for the volunteers. On the other hand, perhaps if more investment was made in the infrastructure needed to support volunteers properly, more quality volunteer time might be accommodated.

Volunteer Work Threatening Paid Work?

We have not yet discussed how threatening volunteers can be to paid staff, particularly in a time of tight budgets. Which is worse if you are worried about job security: limited volunteer help from people with different skills than the paid staff or intensive volunteer help from people highly trained in the same skills? (This is why those expert volunteers so similar to the employees pose additional challenges to the organization here. Would those volunteers allow the organization to lay off or avoid hiring paid staff?)

Paid staff can indeed feel threatened, but only if top administration is, in fact, taking advantage of free help to replace employees or not looking for funding for more. Of course, in a nonprofit, why is this necessarily wrong? Is it a right or a privilege to get paid to work in a mission-based organization? This is the sticky wicket and I usually come down personally on the side of mission. There is a strong argument to be made about right-to-work and rights of workers, but here is where nonprofits are different.

The answers are not going to be found in legislation. Despite the odd definition of an intern, the Fair Labor Standards Act and other Labor Department directives generally are silent on volunteering (and things are not much better elsewhere in the world). But internal organization policies that set an arbitrary maximum on permitted volunteer hours are almost always a way to assuage paid staff fears, without openly confronting the issue of replacement. There can be all sorts of excellent, reasonable guidelines as to what a volunteer may do and how a placement is determined, with consideration of employee rights, without arbitrarily turning down potentially valuable (priceless?) time donors. Remember that volunteers have rights, too!

Designing the Right Work for the Right People

As with everything else in volunteer management, we shouldn’t accept endless hours from volunteers just because they are offered. We can say no for good reasons. Someone may not have the skills we most need, for example, or not fit into the personal chemistry of a team. And I’ve already recommended an initial, more limited get-acquainted time for newcomers.

It all comes back to the challenge of designing the right work for the right people, including those unemployed specialists. Rarely should a volunteer do exactly the same work as an employee. If we craft volunteer positions to be value-added to what employees do, and important in their own right, shouldn’t we want to provide these services to the greatest extent possible?

To repeat: we do not stop money donors from writing bigger checks! Once we value donated time as a critical resource, it becomes clear that turning down such talents is seriously bad management.

Thanks to my correspondent (who requested anonymity) for permission to focus on this issue for my first Hot Topic of 2013. Now you can help advance the thinking of our field by joining in the discussion of this complex question with a response comment.

Do you think capping volunteer hours is a good idea? Why or why not? (If you have such a policy in place, please explain what it is and how it was formulated.)

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Anonymous, Copake/NY, United States

I'm very curious about if it's legal to have international volunteers to work for over 60 hours a week with only one day off per week for a non-profit organization?

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

Your question, in turn, raises many other questions and I hope your group of "international volunteers" are connected to a sponsoring organization -- that is the place to raise your objections.  In general however, the issues here are not really about volunteers, international or not.  No one should have to "work" 60 hours a week -- but do you mean work or do you mean "being on call"?  Many overseas programs are based on immersion -- asking the volunteer to be on-call and available whenever something is needed.  The intent is not to make the person do work intensively without a break, but to be part of a community in which things happen 24-hours a day.  So clarify your issues and then talk to the organization running your placement program about your concerns. 

Submitted on
Dave Jecklett, owner, pmi co, Los Angeles, US

Very informative article,thanks.