What If We Stopped Counting Volunteer Hours?

Sign on a fence that has a bulls-eye and says, "touch the bulls-eye or your lap doesn't count."

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” William Bruce Cameron

The path ends at a sign informing users that their lap doesn’t count unless they hit the target. I never hit the target. It’s a principle. I know that I have walked or skated the distance; I don’t need a symbolic gesture to prove it.

That target came to mind the other day when I read a report by the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA). MAVA hosted listening sessions with Minnesota volunteers who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. Several participants shared that they weren’t interested in hitting the volunteer version of this target by logging their service hours (p. 14). It felt like an extra and unnecessary step.

The MAVA responses echoed the ones I received during a small research study about a program where volunteers drive homebound seniors to appointments. A volunteer tracked his driving hours even though it wasn’t relevant to him personally. He presumed the organization needed these counts for a funder or executive. Interestingly, when I asked one of those executives how she felt about volunteer hours, she wondered what those hours really meant—if they were helping the organization meet its mission or if they represented a drain on staff time and resources (yikes). One of the volunteer administrators at this organization later whispered in a confessional tone that she didn’t really care about tracking hours.

Which got me thinking: what if we stopped counting volunteer hours?

Your Values are Showing

Given the nearly sacrosanct position (and prevalence) of reporting volunteer hours, it feels subversive to question the practice. Volunteer hours are an “industry standard”, typically communicated with numbers of volunteers and their financial value. As such, they offer an air of legitimacy to agencies that track them. 

Here’s the thing: if I asked you about your agency’s success or impact, I bet you would not tell me how many employees work there, the number of hours they clocked last year, and the payroll budget. Yet, we trot out the equivalent of those figures to talk about volunteerism.

Reporting volunteer hours is a telling practice that communicates what we value. It reveals, for example, that we prize volunteer quantity. That we celebrate volunteer volume.

Showcasing hours and volunteer numbers also exposes a few assumptions. It assumes that having volunteers is good and having more volunteers is better. That volunteer quantity is the same thing as (or matters more than) volunteer quality. That all volunteer time is well spent. That an agency is “good” because it had volunteers at all. Or perhaps that a company is a “good” corporate citizen because it deployed employee volunteers (another source of legitimacy).

Of course, if you have worked with volunteers for a while, you know these assumptions do not hold up. A Volunteer Director friend assured me that she could make just about any goal she was given for volunteer recruitment. She also confided that higher numbers made it harder to ensure a meaningful encounter for the volunteer or her nonprofit. Another nonprofit agency had high volunteer numbers because they were a well-known place to serve. They also burned through folks so quickly that few people came back after one shift. A CSR Manager left a fundraising walk frustrated that the employee volunteers he recruited to serve on a Saturday morning spent most of the time standing around because there wasn’t enough work. Yet, he could still include the hours on a monthly report.

If Not Hours, Then What?

In the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about our tendency to swap a question that is hard to answer with one that is easier to answer. What’s more: we usually aren’t aware that we have made a substitution. In volunteerism, that looks like sidestepping the difficult matter of capturing volunteer impact by instead focusing on counting volunteers. We accept a proxy or substitute of volunteer impact for the real thing. And as difficult as it may be to get volunteers to submit their hours, it still seems easier than trying to capture the often intangible and hard-to-count contributions that volunteers make. The problem occurs when we stop wrestling with the hard questions and stick to the easy ones.

So let’s play a game. What would happen if we stopped reporting volunteer hours as a standard (and maybe crutch) of volunteer value?

Taking away this statistic opens up space for alternatives. What would we want to learn about the volunteer experience instead? If we didn’t ask volunteers to flatten their rich, meaningful, challenging efforts to a unit of time, what else would they tell us about their experience? What would we share with our partners and donors and community members? How might it change the nature of the volunteer experience and the nature of volunteer engagement?

For starters, the MAVA session participants recommended that the community being supported by volunteers be prioritized more than the organization or its goals (p. 18). In my research study, the volunteer driver said he cared more about creating a courteous space for his riders to feel safe and welcome. He appreciated the relationships that bloomed with repeat riders. A staff member at that agency talked about the dignity that riders felt from being able to continue living independently. Those experiences are hard to count but also are closer to answering the hard question about volunteer impact.

What if we stopped asking volunteers to report their hours and instead invited them to share about if or how the volunteer experience changed them? What changes they observed while serving? What they learned about the community? Why they came to serve and what they learned in the process?

If Volunteer Administrators and Corporate Social Responsibility Managers didn’t spend their time hustling to get more volunteer hours, how might that free up time for cultivating relationships that support retention or developing partnerships that last beyond a one-day project? What if they treated volunteer hours as a by-product of thoughtful community engagement rather than a goal in and of itself?

As usual, I don’t have the all answers. But asking these questions is an important first step in reconsidering our relationship with volunteer hours and what counts as volunteer value.

Hours and Beyond

In the meantime, I don’t want to abandon all of you who must track volunteer hours; I get it. AmeriCorps, Medicare regulations for hospices, or your funder may not be interested in the potential absurdity of reducing your complex, beautiful, messy, and human work to a tally of hours. In these cases, the key is to be clear about what hours do and do not represent. Reporting hours can show the scope of your work. It can demonstrate how much the community is involved in your agency as volunteers. It can illustrate how much people power it takes to complete a task or project. What reporting hours does not do is reflect volunteer results or accomplishments.

That said, just because you keep reporting hours doesn’t mean you can’t ask your own provocative questions, challenge incorrect assumptions, or clarify language. Have a boss that sets your goal by adding 10% more hours each year? Talk to them about if those hours are meaningful and productive for the agency, the community, and the volunteers. If they are not, how might you rightsize goals or even frame volunteer numbers as a by-product rather than a target? Discuss how having the right volunteers in the right roles might mean that hours go down because the volunteers are more efficient or effective. Help others understand your context and why numbers fluctuate over time, particularly as the pandemic requires ongoing adaptation. Teach what matters beyond volunteer volume.

Are you being lauded for high numbers but retention is awful or the volunteers aren’t a fit for what the community needs? Start a conversation about creating meaningful volunteer experiences or adjusting recruiting strategies to align with the kind of volunteers you need. Clarify and share expectations of volunteers so they know what they are getting into in advance. Explore what would help staff or volunteer leads in nurturing the volunteers on their teams. Ask program participants what they appreciate about the volunteers who support or engage with them. Weave their insights into your storytelling.

Most importantly, help others make the distinction between volunteer hours and volunteer value (or worth, which is a fuller term). Encourage them to look beyond an artificial common denominator to the uncommon aspects about your agency’s work and the ways that volunteers contribute. Push back on the pressure to fit everything in a box that can be counted. Invite others to see your community and its members as people rather than widgets.

And when all else fails, remember poet Mary Oliver’s assertion: “What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.” Or counted.


6 Comments

  1. Ray M Chavez said:

    In our Head Start program we encouraged parent volunteer participation. This experience resulted in self-esteem awareness personal development that encouraged parents enroll in child development academic classes leading to Associate Art degrees. Gainful experiences led to successful interview confidence leading to gainful employment and promotions. Many continued with their academic journey to obtain BA degrees in education related field. Ultimately culminating in mentors and educational role models for their Children. This is the value of community agency volunteerism.

    September 9, 2021
    Reply
    • Wow, what a powerful example of the ripple effect of volunteering and the importance of looking beyond surface numbers. Thanks for sharing!

      September 10, 2021
      Reply
  2. Judith Liebaert said:

    “Here’s the thing: if I asked you about your agency’s success or impact, I bet you would not tell me how many employees work there, the number of hours they clocked last year, and the payroll budget. Yet, we trot out the equivalent of those figures to talk about volunteerism.”

    You are wrong about that. That information is included in the annual reports of every business required to issue such reports. Those numbers have a huge impact on the overall picture of not only the company’s success, but it’s impact within the community as an employer.

    Even for companies where this kind of tracking is not necessary, that information is very much required when asking for any kind of funding or getting a conventional business loan.

    These metrics are equally important for non-profit organizations in their efforts to seek funding. They are absolutely required for much of the available funding. The idea that asking volunteers to keep track of their hours is an unnecessary added burden, or that it prioritizes the needs of the organization and the funders over the needs of the volunteer is an absolutely ludicrous argument. Of course the needs of the organization are prioritized – that’s why your volunteering.
    I spend years in fundraising for a non profit. Every single volunteer we had was equally valued – regardless if they volunteered hours, or special skills/services, and regardless of 1 hour or 100 hours. If any of those volunteers had told me they were opposed to tracking volunteer hours to help me meet markers for in kind corporate donations or public grants, it would have been extremely frustrating.
    If the worry is that the organization itself is wasting employee hours to crunch the number – again, a baseless argument. With todays options for data tracking, the hours for tracking are negligible.
    This whole argument seems to be based in some kind of ego trip on the part of volunteers who feel that assigning a value to volunteer hours somehow diminishes the spirit of volunteering.
    Your actual hands on work when volunteering is in many ways invaluable to non profit organizations – many couldn’t operate without their volunteers. But if you refuse to track your hours, you are literally taking funding dollars out of hands.
    If you don’t want to track hours, find and organization who doesn’t do that and leave the opportunity at organizations who do, for those of us who understand its importance.

    January 10, 2024
    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Judith. I agree that counting volunteers and hours is essential for many agencies to track (as I note in the last section). This post was motivated by the times where focusing on the numbers leads us to chase hours, spend more time reminding people to log their hours than we do building a relationship with them, etc. I’m guessing that linking volunteer numbers to the big picture is intuitive for you, given your deep experience with volunteers and fundraising. For many others though, they start and end with reporting numbers and are frustrated that they can’t get support for the volunteer engagement function. My hope is that providing guiding questions can help folks reveal the impact of all those volunteers and their time.

      I’m also mindful that many agencies are struggling with volunteer recruitment and retention. Others are wanting to make the volunteer experience welcoming and inviting to a broader swath of the population. It’s helpful to reflect internally to consider how different elements of the volunteer process contribute to a meaningful experience (or not). I didn’t get the impression from the MAVA report that volunteers were on an ego trip at all. Rather, they were interested in connecting with and meeting authentic needs of the community. The agency was a pathway into community not the reason to serve. Perhaps those volunteers may be happier at an agency that doesn’t track hours. And perhaps there are ways for the agency to track or estimate hours without asking the volunteer to log them. It can be a worthwhile exercise to review volunteer processes to assess what is truly necessary – and then to share that with current and prospective volunteers so they understand the purpose behind the steps or to make changes that streamline things for everyone.

      February 8, 2024
      Reply
  3. Alma Pohler said:

    Personally, your article is very helpful. I agree with the thought that there is need and room for both. I bring this point to colleagues and director often and as needed.
    Your guiding questions are extremely useful to me as I have been trying to find better ways to articulate questions that will answer the transformative aspect of the volunteer experience. Moreover, your article validated what I have thought about this matter and encourages me to pursuit this perspective. Thank you!

    April 5, 2024
    Reply
    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Alma. It’s always encouraging to hear when the message lands and can help propel others forward on their journey. Keep up the great work!

      April 5, 2024
      Reply

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