“Our lot as human beings dealing with a complex, multi-dimensional and paradoxical world,
is that our knowledge can do no more than
create a weak and rather uni-dimensional representation of that world.”
It’s that time of year: National Volunteer Month. It also happens to be the season when Independent Sector (IS) releases the latest figures about the financial value of volunteer time in the U.S. These hourly rates are widely celebrated and promoted, but they can limit our work. Dr. Laurie Mook, a professor and accountant, helped me understand these limitations through a new lens: critical accounting theory. This detour into accounting provided an unexpected explanation for why the fanfare around the IS rate troubles me.
First, a bit about critical accountancy, compliments of Dr. Mook. Accounting is a set of rules to determine the financial state of the organization. However, “if you look at what’s included and what’s excluded, it presents only a certain reality, one particular reality that informs decision making. And there are other realities. When you start thinking about things from that perspective, how accounting is socially constructed…it opens up other ways of looking at things.” In other words, traditional accounting practices are just one approach among many possible approaches.
Dr. Gareth Morgan’s research provides additional insight. He points out that the reality of accountants is represented with numbers. As a result, accounting statements are good at capturing the quantifiable aspects of organizations. However, they have limited ability to tell us about organizational realities that aren’t easily quantified. Dr. Morgan uses the example of hospitals. “Financial controls can make hospitals more efficient. But they can also make them less humane.” (p. 482)
So what does this have to do with volunteerism?
Precisely this: if a discipline as driven by numbers as accounting is just one view of an organization – and leaves out other important views – how limiting is it for us to use financial value, along with volunteer numbers and hours, as the primary ways we report on volunteer value?
At some level, we all know this, of course. What I love about Dr. Morgan’s take on critical accounting though is that he sees the work of accounting as an “interpretive art”. He views accounting statements as an invitation into “conversation or dialogue” rather than as the final word on an organization’s financial status. This conversation requires the ability to acknowledge and make meaning of the “many and paradoxical dimensions” of our organizations. (p. 484)
Yes! What a great way to think about the work of Volunteer Administrators: as leaders who help interpret, make meaning, and facilitate dialogue about the value of engaging the community in meeting our mission. Of course, our board or funders may favor quantifying volunteer volume and value. We don’t have to stop with these data points though. The bigger work is to help them (and others) see the many diverse ways that volunteers add value to our organizations. These might include:
- Number of clients that volunteers serve
- Number of services that volunteers help provide (such as meals delivered, rides given, kids tutored)
- Amount of money or in-kind gifts that volunteers donate or help raise
- Partnerships or collaborations developed through volunteer connections
- How volunteers reflect the community served
- How many people are educated about the organization and its cause by volunteering
- Stories that capture the intangible or uncountable ways that volunteers contribute
- Levels of satisfaction with the service that volunteers offer
The IS rate is one strand in the volunteer value tapestry. Dr. Mook notes that the IS rate is useful for making volunteers visible in the organization by translating their time into dollars that can be entered into financial statements. It also can help organizations include volunteer time as part of a grant’s in-kind match. However, it is just one thread within a colorful fabric.
Our organizations are complex and multidimensional. Our volunteers partner with paid staff in unique and creative ways. Our collective opportunity then is to tell a fuller story about our teams’ dynamic work by expanding our notions and reports of volunteer value in meaningful ways.
- Morgan, G. (1988). Accounting as reality construction: Towards a new epistemology for accounting practice. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 13(5), 477-485
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