Volunteerism Public Policies Can Hurt Nonprofits

Amidst the predictable praise for volunteerism and the Serve America Act, we at Blue Avocado detect the mooing of a sacred cow. Cow hunter and policy analyst Rick Cohen lets us know the four things we should be worried about with public policy and volunteers:

Is your heart warm from last week's combo of National Volunteer Week and the anniversary of Serve America? Eyes wide open:

  • Bounty paper towels announcing the "Make a Clean Difference" volunteer campaign
  • Kohl's department stores supplying employee "volunteers" to youth organizations
  • Pepsi announcing 32 Pepsi Refresh grants
  • Virgin Mobile's program where Lady Gaga fans enter a raffle for tickets in exchange for volunteering at homeless youth shelters
  • Oh, and $1.15 billion in federal funds for Serve America

Yikes! Who wouldn't be inspired?

But, we're worried. Not about volunteerism. Not even about corporate "volunteerism." We're worried about the dangerous assumptions about volunteering that are used to make public policy in Washington. These assumptions reflect a deep misunderstanding of both volunteerism and the nonprofit sector, misunderstandings that can ultimately hurt both the voluntary and staffed segments of the sector.

The elephant's tail

Despite the large funding and the anticipated deployment of 250,000 "volunteers" in low-paid positions (by 2017), the Serve America celebration did not focus much on how to maximize the impact of this social force either for community impact or for training volunteers for future employment. Instead, the lion's share of attention has been given to the relatively tiny Social Innovation Fund and its $50 million allocation comprising just 4% of the total Act. (The funds will go largely to grantmakers for re-granting; one of the 69 applicants for funding is New Profit, the former employer of the head of SIF, Paul Carttar. Click here for Blue Avocado's coverage of SIF.)

As volunteer managers and nonprofit leaders know, the limiting factor for volunteer impact is NOT a shortage of volunteers, stipended or not. Instead, the limiting factors are the capacity of nonprofits to deploy them effectively, and the unusability of untrained, ill-prepared, temporary volunteer workers.

The two parts of Serve America that are designed to address these key issues received shamefully small portions of the funding: the Volunteer Generation Fund, designed to expand the capacities of "volunteer connector organizations" received only $4 million, and the Nonprofit Capacity Building Program (originally authorized at $25 million by Congress) received only $1 million (for the whole country!).

[Volunteer Generation Fund application deadline is May 18; Nonprofit Capacity Building letters of intent were due April 27 with full submissions on May 18.]

In short, the public's attention has been drawn to the elephant's tail rather than the elephant, attention that is blind to neglected support for the elephant trainers who turn the elephants into effective contributors.

Serve America: 250,000 below-minimum-wage jobs

If we follow the money rather than the fawning press attention, the main impact of Serve America is not in these small programs, but the intended quadrupling of the Corporation's national service programs.

The bulk of federal funds for the Corporation for National and Community Service in FY 2010 ($1.149 billion) is intended to increase the number of AmeriCorps (stipended volunteer) positions to 105,000 toward the Serve America goal of 250,000 in 2017.

These efforts are based on four seriously flawed assumptions:

  • That nonprofit work can be done effectively by enthusiastic-but-untrained volunteers or low-paid employees.
  • That nonprofits experience a shortage of volunteers and do not need additional staffed capacity to support a large influx.
  • That stipended volunteers do not displace paid nonprofit employees (that is, serve to increase the total nonprofit workforce by the number of volunteers rather than by a discounted number based on displaced paid positions).
  • That "job creation" is fulfilled by such "jobs" -- typically paid $13,000 per year full time, and less for part-time, well below minimum wage.

Instead, the realities are, to match point with point:

  • Nonprofit work often requires high skill levels and significant experience, and should be paid appropriately if the work is to be sustainable.
  • There is not a shortage of volunteers (63 million volunteers by one estimate), but rather a flood of people looking for places where they can be helpful. In many cases these are people who really do want to help, but lack the skills and training that would make them valuable contributors.
  • Volunteers do displace nonprofit workers in lower-paid positions, at least according to the January/February 2010 Journal of Economics and Business.
  • Stipended volunteer "jobs" do not offer enough for a person to live on, and contribute to the "casualization of jobs" in human services.

At a seminar extolling the Serve America impetus held at the Center for American Progress -- a think tank close to the Obama Administration -- Fellow Shirley Sagawa praised programs such as Teach for America and City Year, both programs that pay their volunteers, for their ability to "turn good will into outcomes." Sagawa concluded that "public problems can be solved by ordinary citizens if they are called to action." Resonating with American exceptionalism, Sagawa added it is "uniquely American to roll up your sleeves and get things done."

The Obama promotion of voluntary action, whether entirely volunteer or stipended, is neither new nor solely Democratic. George H.W. Bush's call for "one thousand points of light" was greeted with palpable public derision. Maybe it was because Bush was disinclined to put money behind the lights, something that Clinton succeeded in doing with the historic creation of AmeriCorps. George W. Bush promoted a USA Freedom Corps on top of AmeriCorps and called for all Americans to commit two years to volunteer service. President Obama has pledged to triple the size of AmeriCorps, in part through the creation of lots of additional "corps" (such as veterans corps, Healthy Futures Corps) devoted to specific areas of need.

The American exceptionalism here isn't volunteerism, but the incorporation of volunteerism in national public policy. Here's the downside of the volunteerism drumbeat:

Substituting, not supplementing

Imagine if we suggested that the solution to the troubles of Detroit automobile manufacturers was to replace their workers with temporary, untrained volunteers. (Pause here for reflection.)

But when it comes to nonprofits, it's a different story. Today's public policies on volunteers are based on the idea that nonprofit work needs neither training, skills, nor decent pay. AmeriCorps will provide thousands of highly motivated young people who will contribute much, but they cannot substitute for trained, reasonably-paid, permanent staff.

Moreover, this assumption also undermines the notion that nonprofits constitute a viable career option. And in addition, research shows that while volunteerism is meant to supplement paid nonprofit staff, low-skill volunteers often end up substituting for the lower wage jobs in nonprofits.

Unequal wages

In many areas of public policy nonprofits are not treated with parity with their for-profit or government counterparts, for example, the charitable mileage deduction and, recently, the lower level of subsidization of nonprofits compared to small businesses for health insurance subsidies.

The stipended volunteerism juggernaut of Serve America creates "jobs" with AmeriCorps stipends of $10,000 to $13,000 that are above minimum wage only if you include the $10,000 scholarship benefit for those who complete the program and go on to get more education. And unexpectedly, it was discovered that prior to the Obama Administration, half of AmeriCorps participants were actually only employed part-time, although in all likelihood many were working many more hours than their positions required -- or were paid for.

The downside of substituting low-paid stipended-volunteer slots for nonprofit human services jobs is the dynamic of the "casualization of jobs" that Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect describes as jobs that pay low wages, offer weak or no benefits, and little in the way of job protections. Such jobs, which he describes as the "industry standard" in the human service sector, could be different:

"Congress could require that any job in the human services supported in whole or in part by federal funds would have to pay a professional wage and be part of a career track [with a] minimum starting annual salary of $24,000 a year, or about $12 an hour."

That's not much of a salary, but it might sway the public's irrational thinking that the nonprofit workforce can be sustained with an oversupply of caring and concern to make up for the shortfalls in take-home pay and job protections. What is needed is public policy that creates nonprofit jobs with good wages that motivate people to stay on the job.

What's to be done?

First, we need to insist that the nonprofit workforce is treated equally with the business sector in government-supported job training programs, health insurance subsidies, and other areas. The rationalizations for disparate treatment of nonprofit employees is both wrongheaded and insulting.

Second, where nonprofit jobs are funded by government, those contracts should include funding to pay wages comparable to those of other sectors. In the most recent National Compensation Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average earnings of nonprofit workers in community and social services occupations, $17.68 an hour, lagged behind private sector ($17.82), state government ($20.80), and local government ($27.51).

Third, we in the nonprofit sector need to make clear-eyed, strategic use of the stipended volunteer programs. Not only must we leverage these volunteers for public benefit, we must also structure their jobs as first steps in nonprofit careers. With the array of training offered AmeriCorps participants, we can work to see that training for nonprofit careers is included.

Finally we can and must apply the same scrutiny and critical thinking to public policy in volunteerism that we bring to public policy in other areas. Volunteerism is now a major federal program involving the nonprofit sector: we can't afford to let the feel-good aspects keep us from seeing -- and working to correct -- the very harmful components of current policy.

See also:

Rick Cohen's column appears in every other issue of Blue Avocado. Rick's background includes community organizing, municipal government, executive positions at LISC, Jersey City government, and the Enterprise Foundation, and eight years as Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. He is National Correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly, and lives in Washington, D.C. where he never has a shortage of things to be grumpy about.

Comments (60)

  • Anonymous

    I work for a non-profit through Americore and would have to say that I am extremely frustrated with the amount of work expected in comparison to the compensation. $200 dollars a week is absurd anyway you put it but when you accompany that with working over 50 hours, my hourly wage comes out to about $2.50 an hour. Never again will I participate in this program. Community service is one thing, but being taken advantage of is another. I am overly qualified for the job I am at right now and feel as though I'm being abused.

    May 23, 2010
  • Anonymous

    1) It's AmeriCorps, not Americore (though pronounced the same).

    2) $200 divided by 50 is $4/hour. $200 divided by $2.50/hour would imply that you work 80 hours a week (twice the expected amount), which I find frankly unbelievable. I cannot imagine any organization forcing its volunteers to work a double shift every day for 11 months. Most AmeriCorps volunteers I have met have plenty of free time, and many actually volunteer at other agencies in their free time (as a regular citizen, not as an AmeriCorps member). My acquaintance with AmeriCorps members have mostly been on Habitat for Humanity build sites; a typical build day starts at 8:30am and finishes by 3:00 or 3:30pm, hardly a long day (with 45 minutes off for lunch).

    3) "Never again will I participate in this program": no one is forcing you to. Indeed, most AmeriCorps members only do the program once.

    4) "I am overly qualified for the job I am at right now and feel as though I'm being abused": You ought to have known (or asked your organization) about the responsibilities of the position, and if you had figured that you are overqualified, or the job description did not suit you, you shouldn't have taken it. You sound like you think you could have gotten a much-better paying job, involving greater responsibilities, for a commercial organization, in which case the inevitable question is "Why didn't you apply for such a job?".

    5) If you cannot deal with living at poverty-level for a year, then you shouldn't be in a community service program. $200 a week sounds more than enough for groceries, and while the usual $200 monthly housing allowance is a bit tight (especially if you are living in a city), it can be done if you split a $1000/month, two-bedroom apartment four ways (with an extra $50 coming out of your stipend). NOTHING else in life is ESSENTIAL, ANYONE can live without going to the movies, eating out, paying for a gym membership, cable TV and internet (and even phone) service, for a year. (Unless you are writing from a public library, you shouldn't be here on the internet anyway). Essentially, you seem to be complaining that the program actually requires you to WORK for the stipend, which is incredulous to me. What did you expect: that you were going to be paid from a taxpayer-funded program to wake up at noon and spend a four-hour day (including an hour for lunch), doing little more than putting your feet up and twiddling your thumb? Your whiny, complaining attitude is a disgrace to AmeriCoprs and volunteers/stipended service workers everywhere.

    Jul 04, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Why should it even be necessary to have to live at poverty level in order to participate in a community service program such as Americorps? I think your comments are very judgemental and unkind.

    Aug 05, 2010
  • The low living allowance and stipend for Americorps volunteers is meant to align volunteers with the populations for which they are serving. The living allowance also does not effect most government benefits for volunteers who are receiving them. Volunteers who are receiving SNAP benefits for instance, won't have their benefits reduced. Otherwise, this segment of the population would be less likely to serve.

    Sep 17, 2015
  • Anonymous

    We are very interested in this article as we know also in Canada there is little focus on building the strong organization that is required to support significant volunteer engagement. Everyone seems to think more volunteers is the answer!

    One piece we think is missing in this article is that we know there are many very specifically skilled people who will gladly volunteer their time and talent to community organizations. The pay is not an issue, as they are being paid well in their workplace.

    However for us to engage those skills and not pay for them requires a different skill set in paid employees. That skill set usually costs more and therefore we must begin to build a strong organization based on different skills in paid employees - the employees must have an ability to delegate, convene, and connect rather than be the super-do-it-all person! We have so much talent available to us if we only begin to plan our workforce differently. At Vantage Point (formerly Volunteer Vancouver) working with Executive Directors and Board of Directors to build those strong organizations is our core business!

    May 28, 2010
  • I love this point. Working with skilled volunteers -- and their limitations, egos and lack of familiarity with the field -- is a skill that is usually far above what nonprofits pay for in "volunteer management" positions. And for instance, a CFO may not have the skills to engage finance volunteers productively.

    I don't think it's realistic to get this kind of skill set and commitment in the hundreds of thousands of nonprofit staff. I think we need to develop a new type of intermediary: a "temp agency" for volunteers.

    May 28, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Jan - I agree with your observation about needing intermediaries to help nonprofits engage volunteers providing professional services to nonprofits. The assumption Hands On and others have been promoting that every nonprofit can work with professional volunteers just like they do with service volunteers is unrealistic.

    However, I also find your assumptions - which echo comments I have heard you make before - that skilled volunteers equal "limitations, egos and lack of familiarity with the field" a highly prejudiced and unfair comment. Do you think consultants being paid $2000 a day don't have egos, limitations, and lack of experience in areas of the sector? Should nonprofits avoid skilled people and advertise for "unskilled people" only, who apparently don't have limitations? Or egos? Is a retired executive director doing pro bono work suddenly incompetent after 30 years in the field? Or a successful business consultant suddenly unable to attend to her client's needs when she isn't getting a paycheck?

    Skills based volunteerism is no different from any human resources challenge. You need systems, training, professional staff supervision and feedback/evaluation to define and improve best practices. Given how little has been invested in this part of our sector (as in all aspects of volunteerism) there is clearly much more to be done to make the best versions of this model more available. Until we see bank bailout level money flowing into nonprofits to do the work we ask them to do we need this strategy, and we need to make it work. Being derisive and judgmental about the people who are doing it doesn't help us advance the work.

    May 29, 2010
  • I attended last week's National Conference on Volunteering and Service in NYC, co-organized by the Points of Light Institute (POLI; run by the Hands-On Network, not to be confused with the former Points of Light Foundation) and the Corporation for National Service (CNS). I was appalled every time the organizers and speakers said that by attending this conference, we attendees were demonstrating support for national service. While the thousands of us who attended represented communities across the nation, we do not all support nationalized service and volunteering.

    While I believe in volunteering and hope that high quality community engagement takes place nation-wide, I cannot support the current national programs for reasons that Rick Cohen carefully lays out. People from non-POLI, non-Hands-On Network, non-CNS-funded programs were frustrated by a naive, "one-size-fits-all" approach to volunteerism and neighborhoods, attending overflowing sessions on the outskirts of the conference to improve our programs. Handouts and mentions of setting standards were around, but few mainstream sessions (except for pre-conference AVMI) aspired to set high standards and to strive for greater engagement.

    The prevailing attitude, like the rest of the nonprofit sector, was to try to engage more volunteers using fewer resources, even though volunteer programs have been anemically operating with compromised capacity for more than a decade. (No wonder 40% of volunteers quit!) So despite this being a national conference on volunteering, I (and many were) left feeling like the nonprofit sector represented by POLI, Hands-On, and CNS has embarrassingly low standards for volunteer programs and community impact and believes that the Serve America Act is wonderful. Not!

    Jul 09, 2010
  • Thank you for such an interesting comment. I skipped this year's conference after being so disappointed/frustrated with last year's. I agree that it feels as if the "leaders" are assigning all kinds of meaning and messages to volunteerism that are out of sync with reality. The conference has become a mutual self-congratulation among just a few models with relatively speaking recruit and deploy a tiny percentage of America's volunteers.

    Just one more rant: rather than just assuming everyone is agreement on volunteerism (which we aren't), such conferences should highlight different points of view, debates, and so forth. Doing so would strengthen everyone's thinking.

    Jul 10, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I recently received a B.A. in Human Services Studies with minors in Poverty & Social Justice Studies as well as Leadership Studies. This article pinpoints many of my feelings regarding our country's exploitation of "volunteers" and engaging the average citizen in nonprofit work. I had a professor that, similar to the Detroit example, always said, you would not send an average citizen to Doctors Without Boarders to help people. They are trained professionals. And yet, this country believes that human service professions can be done by the average joe. But unfortunately, I have had to give up my morals and take a position with AmeriCorps VISTA because all the jobs I was trying to get were either VISTA positions or organizations cannot afford employees (I believe largely because the VISTA program, as well as other AmeriCorps programs have created a system where nonprofits have to rely on these types of "employees" because there is no funding federally). I believe that I can build capacity while "serving", but I also have an education and extensive experience to back me up. Thanks for this article.

    Sep 01, 2015


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