Behind every annual report touting the number of hours that volunteers serve is a host of staff
harassing gently reminding those volunteers to submit their time sheets. Tracking volunteer hours inflicts pain ranging from annoyance to misery and does so across sectors and role. Volunteer Directors, Corporate Social Responsibility Managers, Service Learning Coordinators, and the volunteers themselves bear this burden.
Rarely does tracking volunteer hours make anyone feel more excited about service. In fact, it can do just the opposite. Counting and reporting hours may:
- Make volunteering feel like a job.
- Send the message that volunteers are valued only for the time they contribute rather than the skills, talent, expertise, insight, and experience they have to offer.
- Imply that volunteers who can give more time are more valuable than those who serve fewer hours (especially if volunteer recognition highlights those with the most hours)
- Turn an experience that includes connective, relational, and community elements into one that feels transactional.
- Prioritize the needs of the organization or its external stakeholders who require hours over the needs of the volunteers who have to tally and report those hours.
- Obscure the other important elements of volunteerism that don’t lend themselves to counting.
- Not be all that accurate. As a colleague confided recently, “Our numbers are rubbish.”
Let’s be honest, the least interesting thing about volunteering is the amount of hours that someone served.
This is not to say that there is no value in tracking volunteer hours. There is a time and place for quantifying volunteer time, just not every time and every place. Given the dominance of volunteer hours in everything from agency annual reports to volunteer recognition luncheons, we don’t need another blog extolling their so-called virtue. What we need is the creativity and permission to explore alternatives that help paint a fuller picture about what volunteers accomplish.
I’ve written before about counting volunteer hours but recent conversations prompted me to revisit it. One of the issues is how uninspiring it feels to report hours. (One colleague called the process “soul-sucking”.) Completing a time sheet rarely leaves us fulfilled.
It made me wonder what we could ask volunteers to share that might feel generative. That could link our volunteer efforts to our purpose for serving. That could reconnect us with the impact of the experience. So it caught my attention when Tracey O’Neill, the Senior Manager of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence shared an impact survey that she invites volunteers to complete with prompts that include:
- How did you contribute to the organization this year?
- What volunteer story or experience are you most proud of?
- Has volunteering changed your perspective on anything, and if so, how?
- Volunteering helps me to…
What I love about this approach is that it connects volunteers to their service in a more thoughtful way than reporting hours does. It invites and values their perspectives. It prompts them to reflect and make meaning.
The responses also help the agency team gain insight into the volunteer experience. They have a better sense of what is working and where improvements are needed. For example, the questions about changed perspectives revealed the sometimes harmful assumptions that volunteers brought into the service experience. Tracey and her team have used that information to revise their volunteer training.
These questions and other open-ended reflections take time to complete. Yet, I suspect this time feels more like an investment than a chore. Better yet, it doesn’t just check a box for the agency. Volunteers get a reminder of their work and its importance, which can contribute to a sense of being appreciated for their efforts.
Funders can play a significant role in encouraging more meaningful volunteer value tracking. For example, a funder in one of my research projects added a twist to the usual reporting of volunteer numbers and hours. They wanted to know more about how their agency partners were engaging skills-based volunteers (SBV). In addition to numbers, they asked the agency to define skills-based volunteering and to give an example of SBVs in action.
The responses gave important context to what volunteerism looked like at the partner agencies and what the numbers meant. In one agency, for instance, volunteers accompanied couples to the theater when one spouse had a significant health issue. This allowed the caregiving spouse to enjoy the show without having to be fully responsible for attending to the loved one’s health needs. The numbers of volunteers and volunteer hours for this program were low. However, the impact for each of these couples (and the volunteers) was deep and meaningful. Without context, the numbers alone may have led to the impression that the program and volunteer support were not successful or worthwhile.
This funder’s approach can be a useful example for others who are funding or supporting service. Instead of requiring volunteer numbers as a default, ask agency partners to report data that are meaningful to their mission and context. Invite them to share why those data points are relevant to their work. Doing so allows the agency to learn from and promote useful data while complying with grant requirements. It also helps you learn about the nuance of volunteering, which can support better grantmaking. (For funders interested in investing in volunteer engagement, check out this valuable guide from the Leighty Foundation.)
It’s tempting to stick with what we know when it comes to reporting on volunteer value. Yet, standardized numbers rarely do justice to the decidedly non-standard efforts of volunteers. We have an opportunity to reveal more of what makes volunteers an integral element of the agency’s mission. Let’s embrace what makes volunteerism unique in our agencies and define a new standard of value.
What Else? Your Turn.
I’m often asked what agencies are doing to capture volunteer value more fully. I’d love to collect and share your ideas on my website or add another example to this blog. Are you tracking or reporting something other than volunteer numbers and hours? Please reach out (even if you’re not ready to share it with others). Let’s learn together and craft a new narrative about the value volunteers contribute to agencies and the community.
Thanks to Tracey O’Neill for sharing her efforts to reveal volunteer impact in new ways and her thought leadership in service!