The Gap between What is Meaningful and What is Measured

Rock painted with tiny purple fractals
Thanks to Dr. Svitlana Krasynska for gifting me this beautiful rock!

I often begin workshops on volunteer engagement asking people about their volunteerism and what was meaningful about it.

Not once has anyone said that what was most meaningful about their volunteer work was serving 104 hours.

Conversely, as a former nonprofit executive, I am keenly aware that organizations need to demonstrate effectiveness. Yet when we report on program success, we leave out how volunteers contributed to it. If and when we highlight volunteers, we tend to count them and assign a price to their service without mentioning what they accomplished on behalf of the organization.  

There seems to be a gap in volunteerism between what is meaningful and what is measured.

Part of the issue is that we apply market metrics to volunteerism, which doesn’t play by market rules. But it wasn’t until I discovered research about gift economies that I found a new language to understand volunteer contributions. Gift economies make a distinction between value and worth.

By way of example, I share with you the rock above. You can buy a rock like this for $20 to $40. That price is its value. For me though, this rock’s worth is greater than a price tag. This rock was a gift from a good friend who hand painted it for me. Its worth is not just its potential dollar value but as a symbol of our friendship and a reminder of the encouragement she’s given me as a mentor and friend.

We can apply value and worth to volunteerism. Value is the numbers and dollars we associate with service. Worth is a broader and more inclusive concept than value. Worth includes numbers and dollars, but it also incorporates meaning, tradition, culture, spirit, and sentiment. It captures the purpose and connection that occur through service. As such, it fits volunteerism better than value alone. Worth is harder to report than value, but it gives us a language that reveals the vitality and complexity of volunteerism.

Let’s consider an example of a volunteer ride-sharing program. Volunteers provide free or affordable rides to seniors who are not able to drive. They go to the grocery store and doctor’s visits. We can think about this program’s value in many ways. We might count the number of riders served, the rides given, the number of miles driven or hours tallied. We could count the number of volunteer drivers. These are all helpful things to know. But they are incomplete.

These numbers leave out what it means to the riders to be able to live independently and with dignity. The numbers don’t address the sense of confidence and relief that the riders’ families have knowing that their loved one has safe transportation and someone to physically check in on them. The numbers don’t reveal how important it is to the volunteers to feel like they are contributing to someone’s life in an important way.

To be sure, it is challenging to capture independence, dignity, relief, and purpose. Yet, they are often the motivation behind the programs and volunteer roles we offer. Only reporting on what we can easily measure does a disservice to our missions and the people we serve. It prioritizes the needs of funders who request numerical measures; it overlooks the interests of the program and volunteer participants. Adopting volunteer worth gives us the language to talk more fully about volunteer contributions – and the permission  to do so. As a result, we can talk about what is meaningful and what is measured.

Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass introduced me to gift economies (and is a delicious read). Lewis Hyde’s The Gift was the deep dive that inspired the application of gift economy principles to volunteerism.

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