Exploring the true cost of volunteering

Andy Fryar February 1, 2007 0
Exploring the true cost of volunteering


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

The latest ‘hot topic’ doing the rounds here in Australia appears to be the one relating to the ‘cost’ incurred by volunteers in pursuing volunteer activity in this country.

Significantly, a new report was released recently, outlining the key findings of a taskforce, convened by Volunteering Australia, to examine some possible solutions to the rising costs associated with people participating in voluntary activity here in Australia .

As I understand it, the taskforce was pulled together by VA after the topic of rising ‘out-of-pocket expenses’ had been highlighted

as a major concern over a series of surveys conducted in recent years.

To quote directly from the Volunteering Australia website, some of the key findings of these surveys were:

. 1245 surveyed (volunteers & managers) representing up to 400,000 volunteers

. 88% of volunteers reported some out-of-pocket expenses after reimbursement

. 24% are considering changing their volunteering due to costs in the next 12 months

. 10% have reduced or stopped volunteering in the last 12 months due to costs

. 27% of organisations report an increase in reimbursement requests in the last 12 months

. 68% of volunteers did not claim any expenses back from their organisation

. 60% of organisations say they offer some level reimbursement.

. 71% of respondents volunteer at least once a week.

. 81% of volunteers had travel expenses relating to their volunteering.

. 54% of respondents believe government should bear some responsibility

(Source: www.volunteeringaustralia.org)

While on one hand, the fact that it does cost money to volunteer is no great surprise to those of us who have been involved in volunteering for any length of time (Yes governments everywhere – it is a fact!) On another level however, these figures should have those of us who lead volunteer programs standing up and taking notice, as it appears these rising costs are now (more than ever) beginning to have a direct correlation on the choices that volunteers are making when deciding how to share their time.

The ‘Cost of Volunteering’ taskforce did a great job in outlining some potential solutions to these problems, and I would encourage all of you to read the report for yourself on the Volunteering Australia website ( www.volunteeringaustralia.org )

For now though, I don’t wish to dwell on the report itself. While some of the more easily identified ‘out-of-pocket’ expenses such as meal vouchers and rising petrol prices are all important I rather wanted to take this opportunity to discuss some of the ‘other costs’ associated with volunteering that many of us may not always consider.

Here’s a brief list of the more tangible expenses borne by volunteers that I hope you may all be able to add to:

Training – Contrary to popular belief, not all volunteer agencies pay for their volunteers to be trained. There are many cases where volunteers need to pay for this themselves, sometimes at a considerable price.

Police Checks – Not usually considered an ‘out-of-pocket’ expense, but more often than not a necessary evil in this day and age, and in many cases not covered by the program.

Uniforms – There are plenty of cases where volunteer uniforms are mandatory but not supplied without the volunteer dipping into their own pocket.

Travel – Petrol aside, many volunteer jobs these days include significant travel – sometimes overseas or interstate. Take the Sydney Olympics as a prime example.

IT costs – Another cost not always covered occurs when volunteers work remotely or take work home with them, and where they are suing their own computers, broadband connections and printing material.

Insurance – We easily think of public liability insurance and motor vehicle cover, but what about the costs associated with things like travel or medical insurance where volunteer activity may necessitate such things

Home costs – I’d hate to think what some volunteers spend on electricity when using their oven to cook for bake sales – not to mention the ingredients themselves!

Now let’s consider some of the broader concepts around the ‘costs’ that some volunteers take on board?

Try these:

The cost to employers – Employers who release staff to volunteer in emergencies (eg to fight fires) potentially bear productivity and wage costs that could end up costing them thousands. My thinking around this was fuelled recently by the 50+ days that bushfires raged across Victoria, and the fact that this amounted, in many cases, to much more than an employer giving a volunteer employee a ‘day or two off’ to fight a fire! I wondered what would happen to medium size rural businesses where being a member of the Country Fire Service was the rule rather than the exception, and where the entire staff disappeared at the first sound of an emergency bell?

Psychological costs – Volunteers who do not have support services properly funded as a part of their volunteer workplace can suffer terribly through the type of work they do. I think particularly again of rural SES or CFS volunteers who may attend the scene of a fatal road accident (particularly where they know the victim), or volunteers working in hospital emergency departments and those dealing with death and dying in palliative care services.

Legal costs – What about volunteer activists who take their protests to the extreme of getting arrested for a particular cause? The cost in these cases is often more than just the price of bail and court appearances, but of the possibility of having a criminal record for life.

The cost to families – I can clearly think of several individuals who I have had dealings with over the years for whom volunteering became ‘everything’ – to the extent that it eventually affected their family and home life.

Living costs – Many volunteers who provide overseas service receive stipends based on the equivalent of a local wage.

Physical costs – Or put more precisely, the cost of a volunteer’s health or even life. While an extreme suggestion, let’s not forget that some volunteers do actually lose their lives or sustain life long injuries through performing their volunteer work. I think particularly of volunteer fire fighters and peace keepers in foreign and sometimes hostile countries. Let’s also not forget the diggers from WW1, most of whom volunteered for service.

And last but not least, the cost of effectively managing a volunteer program! Sadly many agencies still try and find short cuts to the effective management, support and leadership of their volunteering unit, which usually only serves to increase the difficulties associated with the retention and recruitment of volunteers.

My reason for suggesting a list such as this is twofold:

Firstly, I want to help us to think through the broader range of ideas that incur a cost of some description, and in doing so, encourage those of us who lead volunteer programs to take seriously the responsibilities that come with that. Sadly, we are not usually the ones who hold the purse strings yet we do carry the position of being the person employed by our agency to be the ‘expert’ when it comes to matters pertaining to the management of volunteer programs.

Accordingly, I believe we have a responsibility to;

. continue to think through all of the ‘costs’ that the volunteers in our programs may incur and

. tirelessly advocate for the availability of resources to cover these costs, whatever they may be.

My second reason for raising these ideas is to see if we might continue to build on the suggestions put forward by the ‘cost of volunteering’ taskforce.

For instance, what should the role of government be in supporting volunteerism? If the rising cost of being a volunteer is actually going to turn people away from volunteering, then surely there is validity in government providing more funding (through whatever means) to volunteers or voluntary organisations to assist with these costs. Similarly, volunteer involving organisations themselves need to break away from the ‘poor’ mindset that many of them hold and find ways of making available more funds to offer greater support to volunteers to offset the costs they are bearing.

In closing, it would be remiss of me not to make the very obvious point that volunteering IS (or at least should be) based on the notion of reciprocity. That is, while volunteers have something they wish to GIVE in volunteering, they also have something they want to GET out of the same activity. So is it therefore not reasonable to assume that for many volunteers, the payback they receive from their volunteering is greater than the sum they have to do to participate in the first place. Perhaps this is the reason many volunteers actually choose not to claim reimbursements, even when they are available.

OK I have rambled enough for one hot topic, but I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this issue.


  • Do you have ideas about ways volunteer expenses can be better reimbursed?
  • Do you believe it is incumbent upon the agency to provide an option for out of pocket expense reimbursement?
  • What role should government play?
  • What are your thoughts on the task force report?
  • Are there other costs that I haven’t identified in this article?
  • Does the payment of a greater number of expenses change the volunteering equation in any way?

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