What’s the ‘value’ of volunteering?

Andy Fryar April 1, 2006 3
What’s the ‘value’ of volunteering?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

This month’s Hot Topic is not so much a well thought out essay, but rather a quick series of random thoughts and questions on the topic of how we might best view the ‘value’ of different volunteer efforts.

During the month I referenced an interesting opinion piece by journalist Mirko Bagaric which had appeared on a web site called ‘On Line Opinion: Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate’ and also in the ‘Geelong Advertiser’ – see the article in it’s entirety at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=4278

The article elicited a great deal of response both within the OzVPM Newsgroup and also more broadly via personal e-mails that I sighted.

In the article, titled ‘Volunteering for the ‘right’ reasons’, the author (who is obviously not a great fan of the Commonwealth Games) essentially argued that the time people have spent volunteering for the games is essentially a ‘waste of time’. He suggests that the long term benefits of assisting with a major sporting event is potentially a waste of resources – and that the time committed to the games might have been better used had it been contributed to a social service agency. He even goes on to suggest that a better outcome may have been for games volunteers not to volunteer at all, but rather stay at work, earn extra money, and send it to Africa.

Now while I could go on for ever about the inaccuracies and assumptions the piece makes about volunteering and a person’s motivations for doing so, I particularly wanted to take up the challenge of discussing whether or not one type of volunteering does have more community benefit than another.

All volunteer activity has a result – an outcome which arguably varies greatly from one volunteer role to another. However, is it possible to say that the benefits derived from one voluntary act is more important or potentially better than another?

Let’s consider the following series of questions:

~ A volunteer fire fighter rushes into the face of danger and extinguishes a blaze, in the process saving a home and livestock. Is the act of this volunteer greater (or more valuable) than the volunteer who drove the fire truck to the scene or the administration volunteer who via the radio navigated the pair to the correct address? Which role produced the most ‘value’?

~ What if putting the fire out didn’t just save a property, but also saved the life of a small child trapped inside the burning house? Is the value of this scenario now greater than that outlined in the previous example?

~ Picking up on the theme of the referenced article, let’s ask a question of volunteering in special events, the arts, sport, recreation or areas of environmental responsibility? Are these activities ‘less serious’ (and therefore less valuable) acts of volunteering than say working in a soup kitchen or amongst the starving masses in some parts of Africa?

~ Should these types of activities continue to be encouraged at all costs or should volunteer agencies discourage involvement in favour of more ‘serious’ volunteer opportunities?

~ How would the author reconcile his beliefs against the fact that following the Games, Melbourne’s sporting infrastructure will be stronger than ever? What are the flow-on effects of this on Melbourne’s youth in the years to come? Where does the value of these things fit?

~ Should we attribute the same ‘value’ to a volunteer doctor providing medical assistance at the Commonwealth games as we would a volunteer bus driver at the same event – ferrying athletes from one venue to another?

~ What if the qualified doctor was not working as a volunteer in their medical capacity? Instead,what if s/he was working as a volunteer transport driver? Does their value decrease?

As I am sure you may have guessed I am trying to deliberately stir up some debate, because I do believe it is a question worth exploring in more depth.

For instance:

~ Why is it that some areas of volunteering appear to receive far more funding support than others? Is this merely a perception issue or do government and other funders actually believe it is more valuable to fund some voluntary activities over others?

~ Is this directly related to what you might pay a salaried staff member to perform the same tasks?

~ Should the value of volunteering somehow be tied into the direct benefit others receive as a result of the activity — and how do you measure that?

~ As a part of these equations, how do you properly value the benefits derived by the volunteer themselves (ie. a volunteer who was suicidal now finds value in their life through their volunteer work)

This is sure an interesting conversation and worthy of continuing – so let’s hear your random responses to my muddled thoughts!


  1. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Response posted on April 19, 2006 by Sue Jones, Training Project Manager & Volunteer Coordinator, Warrington Volunteer Centre, United KingdomWow! What a deeply provocative set of random thoughts! I read both the original article and your essay with great interest. Being based in the UK, we have already begun the lead up to recruiting volunteers for the Olympics in 2012, and I think what I think is this.

    Volunteering (like most things in life) is a highly subjective and relative experience, and therefore we cannot ‘pass judgement’ in saying that one activity is clearly more worthwhile than another. Whilst at first look, it is easy to claim that sending aid to a third world country is a more effective way of spending government money, we need to step back, however and reflect on the possibilities that are created as a result of individuals participating in any kind of voluntary work. Any activity is surely measured by the impact it has on others – but it is difficult to capture the true extent of an impact in a prescriptive, formulaic way and I don’t think you can say that the value of volunteering should be tied in to the direct benefit others receive as a result. We just need to accept that anything that raises the profile of volunteering is a good thing and where individuals are encouraged to give up their time freely and the experience is a positive one – this will surely open up for them (and therefore others), a whole world of possibilities. I do concede that some areas of volunteering sometimes seem to receive more funding than others, but like sporting events – it’s often that it goes around and comes around and therefore we need to seize opportunities when the spotlight is focused in our direction.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 11:17 am - Reply

    Response posted on April 10, 2006 by DJ Cronin, Volunteer Program Manager, Greenslopes Private Hospital, Brisbane, Australia

    The authors article was certainly thought provoking and I did find it interesting and challenging. He clearly had a strong opinion of which he is entitled to. I must say that initially I empathised with him. Volunteering for an Olympics or a Commonwealth Games is such a glossy affair. Yes, there may be many motivations behind a person wanting to volunteer for such events. And those volunteers may indeed volunteer for more “worthy” causes. And are there more worthy causes? My answer is that there must be. In calling a spade a spade I say that there is more value in volunteering to go out on the streets on a cold wet night to bring some food and comfort to a homeless person than there is telling a jovial spectator where the MCG is located. I also believe the extravagance and costs behind these sporting events are excessive given that many community groups struggle for funding. Still, it looks good for Governments doesn’t it that so praise the thousands of volunteers. Great accolades all round. And yet when millions around the world, on that wonderful but now sadly forgotten Sunday, volunteered to march showing their opposition to War in Iraq, they were simply ignored by Governments. The fireworks that lit up the night sky over Melbourne were certainly prettier than the missiles that lit up over Baghdad!

    Volunteers for Peace – now there’s an organisation awaiting birth!

  3. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 11:16 am - Reply

    Response posted on April 10, 2006 by Rosemary Kavanagh
    Volunteering is an act of giving – of oneself for the benefit of others. As a volunteer firefighter, in just one of my volunteering capacities, I can assure you that each member of the team contributes to the successful outcome. No one person has more value than any other. They may have more experience, special abilities etc. But it is the nature of volunteering that people get involved and learn and then they become the more experienced.The key is identifying the special abilities of each volunteer and encouraging and assisting them to develop those skills to their full potential.Then using those skills for the benefit of the community in whatever capacity.

    Every volunteering organisation and its members contribute to the strengthening of the fabric of our society. It doesn’t matter whether it is the Junior U5 soccer team or the State Emergency Services. Each person who volunteers regardless of the type of activity contributes No task is too small. Little steps taken often will cover a greater distance and maintain the endurance needed to achieve the desired result. There are usually no kudos involved just a lot of hard work and no recognition outside the immediate organisation.
    Funding for volunteer organisations seems to depend on the ability of the organisation to lobby effectively for funds and then to negotiate an equitable distribution of funds within each organisation. We get the governments we deserve. The politicians reflect the values and mores of the society around them. Volunteers by their very nature generally just get in and do what needs to be done. We are not media savvy as a whole and certainly do not beat our chests and tell the world what wonderful individuals we are.

    While it is sad that there are many places in the world where volunteers could assist, the fact remains that our lives are here and many of us will never have the opportunity to physically relocate to assist others outside Australia. It would be unreasonable to do nothing for anyone. Who knows through some of our stay at home volunteer organisations we may be inspiring the next great philanthropist.

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