A Contrarian’s Guide to Volunteer Value (Or an Ode to Volunteer Worth)

Four power lines with one contrarian bird sitting away from a group of birds
From Shutterstock

1 Abandon numbers and dollars when describing volunteer value. In folk tales, when a gift is counted or priced, it loses its magic.1

2 Remember that you cannot measure everything that matters, especially when it comes to community and volunteerism. As William Bruce Cameron puts it, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Stop trying to prove volunteers are valuable. They are or are not. Numbers don’t make them so.

Consider the implications of asking volunteers to report their hours. What does hour tracking tell them? That they are valued when they are on the clock? For their productivity?

Keep in mind that volunteer hours are the by-product of thoughtful community engagement, not the goal.

Don’t confuse volunteer numbers with meaning. Volunteer volume isn’t the same as volunteer impact.

Acknowledge that community and volunteerism are not necessarily linear or num3rical.

Ask better questions even if it’s not possible to answer them fully. Instead of “How many volunteers did we have?“, ask “Did we meet a community need?” and “How do we want to be in community with each other?“.

Focus on the Return on Values or Return on Purpose of volunteerism rather than the Return on Investment. Volunteerism has its roots in community, not business.

Paint a picture. Tell a story. Craft a metaphor about what volunteers mean to the organization and community.

Treat volunteer time and energy as renewable resources that will expand when nourished and contract when treated poorly2.

Be a good steward of volunteer time, however much or little someone has to offer.

Pursue work that is community-driven and just, even especially when you cannot see or prove its worth.

Swap numbers and effectiveness for faithfulness. Parker Palmer3 observes that, “…when measurable, short-term outcomes become the only or primary standard for assessing our efforts, the upshot is as pathetic as it is predictable: we take on smaller and smaller tasks—the only kind that yield instantly visible results—and abandon the large, impossible but vital jobs we are here to do. When faithfulness is our standard, we are more likely to sustain our engagement with tasks that will never end: doing justice, loving mercy, and calling the beloved community into being. 

Adopt love as the organizing principle for volunteerism. Shiree Teng and Sammy Nunez4 remind us that, “Love emanates from the self…but to be in practice, love must show up in community. It is in community that we can see the true power of love in action. Not a romantic, anemic, Disney-fantasy of love, but a tough, gritty, messy, chaotic, non-linear journey (p. 8).” What would volunteerism look like if we grounded it more intentionally in love? What does love compel us to do that numbers can’t?

With gratitude to Curt Luthye for the conversation and questions that inspired this blog.


1 Hyde, L. (2019). The gift. How the creative spirit transforms the world. (3rd ed.) Vintage.

2 Brudney, J.L., & Meijs, L.C.P.M. (2009). It ain’t natural: Toward a new (natural) resource conceptualization for volunteer management. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly38(4), 564-581. [This article can be accessed by creating a free account with Academia.edu or you can read highlights on the Volunteer Commons website.]

3 Parker, P. Healing the heart of democracy discussion guide video. https://couragerenewal.org/wpccr/democracyguide/v37/

4 Teng, S. & Nunez, S. (2019). Measuring love in the journey for justice: A brown paper.


  1. Greg Forrester said:

    Totally agree with the sentiment of your thoughts – the full value of volunteers cannot be measured. However, in disaster situations, when a FEMA declaration occurs, counting volunteer hours has a secondary direct benefit of offsetting a direct monetary cost to the community.

    April 5, 2022
    • Agreed. There is definitely a time and place for counting volunteer hours although it’s not every time and every place. (I wrote about that here: ) This blog arose from the frustration that some leaders get stuck on counting and can’t move beyond it. I want to give us permission to embrace the full scope of what volunteers contribute. Thanks for reading and commenting, Greg!

      April 5, 2022
  2. Tracy said:

    When I was very new to volunteer leadership I was asked to complete a community benefit report related to volunteer value. When a question asked “How many reached?” I answered 1,00,000s ala the McDonalds sign. It was cute and relatable, but in a community hospital, it was also true. The impact of a volunteer, like a rock in a still lake, moves on and on in wider circles.

    April 8, 2022
  3. Gretchen Jordan, CVA said:

    ‘Renewable Resource’ is a term I have not heard frequently and think it would set will with decision makers.

    April 30, 2024
    • That framing is from a thought-provoking article by Jeffrey Brudney and Lucas Meijs that borrows concepts from the commons for volunteer engagement. It really broadens the view of service.

      I provide an overview here. The original article is in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.

      April 30, 2024

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