Wednesday, 28 January 2015

To Pay Or Not To Pay? That is the question

We're very pleased to welcome back guest blogger Mel White. Mel wrote a two country perspective on volunteering and welfare to work schemes for us late in 2014 and now brings that same dual nation perspective to the issue of reimbursing volunteer expenses.


A little background – I am originally from the UK having managed a Volunteer Centre service there for 15 years. I immigrated to Australia in April 2013 and within two weeks of arriving found employment within a Volunteer Resource Centre.

I have enjoyed seeing the differences in practice between the two countries but would like to share my thoughts on the practice of paying volunteer expenses.

In the UK payment of volunteer travel expenses to and from a voluntary place of work was viewed as one of the cornerstones of good practice. Certainly within the Volunteer Centre I worked at, out of over 200 volunteering opportunities fewer than ten would not cover this out of pocket expense. When an organisation first submitted their application to receive volunteer referrals from us, and indicated on the application form that they did not pay travel expenses, we would approach them to try and instil the importance of this. If their response was that their budgets did not stretch that far (usually small volunteer led organisations) then we would put them in touch with our funding advisor to look at putting together a funding bid to cover the cost. We would then advise them that whenever they put in future funding bids that they include this cost. If funding was not an option we would look at ways they might assist volunteers with travel e.g. car sharing with other volunteers or a couple of services had a bus to pick up clients to take them to social activities and they also picked up the volunteers. In some cases (particularly two large charities with huge turnovers) we held protracted meetings with senior management to explore their reasons for not paying these expenses, especially as both organisations were fairly inaccessible by public transport. Where all else failed we made all non-paying organisations aware that we would tell prospective volunteers that they would not get their travel expenses reimbursed and that this was practice we didn’t agree with. It was then the volunteer’s personal decision whether to follow that application through.

Given this background imagine my complete surprise to arrive in Australia and find this was not the model here. In fact it is quite the opposite; there is a minority of organisations that do cover volunteers travel expenses to and from their place of work. Thankfully the volunteer project I am managing is one of the few, so day to day my morals and everything I believe in are not compromised.

In my 18 months here I have had the conversation regarding travel expenses with so many professionals and felt I needed to record my thoughts in a blog post.

To me the payment of travel expenses to and from a volunteering role is  fundamental to an inclusive volunteering program. When looking at the diversity of our volunteer base we talk about engaging people from all walks of life and where possible, not holding any bias with regard to age, gender, mental health, physical ability, race, sexual orientation etc.. However my concern is that by not reimbursing the cost of travel to and from a place of voluntary work we are in fact financially discriminating against a huge group of individuals who are on low incomes. Running a car is not without expense and don’t get me started on public transport costs!

For those who are living on state benefits or a pension, the reluctance by many organisations to cover this cost is a huge barrier to them becoming involved. It could quite simply be the choice between food for the week for the family or volunteering and it’s obvious what the majority would choose.

There is also the rurality argument. I hear so much about engaging people from rural communities and country towns. Many argue that small towns have greater community cohesiveness and there are lots of opportunities to volunteer on your own doorstep. But what if people want a different volunteering experience at, for example, a zoo or a large hospital? Those opportunities are not available where they live, but travel outside of their town may be a financial impossibility without a contribution to travel expenses.

There is also the issue of car parking. Some larger organisations like zoos and hospitals or organisations located in busy cities may not have dedicated spaces for volunteer parking and this can be another hefty cost burden to the volunteer.

Introducing the payment of expenses seems to be a terrifying prospect when they have not been paid before. There is the fear that flood gates will open and volunteer projects will not have the disposable income to cover the costs. Yes budgets need to be considered before this is done and it may, for a while, be a long term goal but an important one to work towards.

What many fail to realise is that not all volunteers want to claim travel expenses.

My advice to volunteer involving organisations in the UK used to be to encourage all volunteers to claim their travel expenses. However on the claim form they could choose to donate their expenses back to the organisation if they did not want them. The really clever organisations then gift aided this donation!

By getting all volunteers to submit a claim you can clearly demonstrate the cost of running a volunteer program whether that be to higher management, funders, government or other stakeholders. Within the project I manage here only 30% of volunteers claim their expenses. The important thing is they have the choice and the control. Every quarter, regardless, they all get sent an expenses claim sheet. People’s circumstances change quickly; people become bereaved, they or their partners lose jobs, they have families - there is a myriad of reasons why someone who once did not want to claim expenses may now need to.

One of the answers I get that really grinds my gears when I ask about payment of expenses, is the following; ‘if people are suffering hardship they can ask us and we will make special arrangements to cover their travel expenses.’

Really??? From the point of view of someone who has experienced financial difficulties, my sense of dignity would not have allowed me to make such an approach. I would have quite simply walked away from my voluntary role. Where circumstances have changed e.g. a marriage breakdown, that could be an incredibly personal and emotional situation for someone to discuss. A person’s financial status to my mind is a private matter. We don’t ask volunteers to declare their financial situation on an application form so why should we expect them to then disclose it further down the line?

In the same vein, how many projects make it clear that there will be an out of pocket cost to volunteer with their organisation? Often this is not just travel but volunteers find they have to pay for a police check, buy specific clothing or use their own telephone. Too often this is not made clear from the out set. By covering certain volunteers expenses we as volunteer managers are making a lot of assumptions about all our volunteers and we risk singling out certain volunteers for special treatment which may create team conflict if others find out about it. I know the intention is well meaning but for me personally it is really bad practice.

In the UK, one large organisation we dealt with had a volunteer manager who could not see the inequality of his practice. The opportunity they offered was completely unique but their location was semi-rural and certainly within walking distance of only two small villages. The cost of a bus fare from the nearest town was costly and the organisation was a large tourist attraction. Despite many protracted conversations with this organisation the manager always stated that none of their hundreds of volunteers had ever asked about expenses. Enquiring as to the diversity of their volunteer workforce it seemed a typical volunteer would be white, financially independent, middle aged with their own transport. It was such a shame that effectively volunteering with this organisation did have hidden barriers that no one was prepared to change.

Possibly one of the biggest volunteer projects the UK has ever seen that did not pay expenses was the 2012 London Olympics. It’s fair to say I was disappointed by the whole way volunteering opportunities were managed. Yes, people could volunteer but they had to fund their own transport and accommodation in London for the length of time the Games were on. Maybe not so bad if you lived in the capital. They rolled a program out in the lead up to the Games aimed at disengaged young people who needed literacy and numeracy tuition. The ‘reward’ upon completion of the course was a guaranteed volunteer role at the Games. Thousands and thousands of pounds was thrown into this program and many young people were able to gain a much sought after volunteer role. Was any money set aside to actually assist them in funding the cost of living in London for two weeks not to mention the plane/train/automobile cost to get there? You’ve guessed it – no!

I also took a heartbreaking call from a mature student who had worked so hard to realise her dream of getting valuable experience in stage production. She had put herself through university and had secured a volunteer role to help with set design and production of the opening ceremony at the Games. She was then devastated to discover she had to fully fund her accommodation and transport to take up the coveted place. She quite simply could not afford to. I believe the London 2012 committee missed a real opportunity to lead the way in recognising all volunteers and raising the profile of volunteering by setting a fantastic example of a full cost recovery volunteering program.
The landscape of volunteering is changing and increasingly government programs see the value of voluntary work experience in progressing people towards the (paid) labour market. In Australia a new program ‘Work for the Dole’ is about to roll out. An optional activity people can engage in, is voluntary work. I hope advisors ensure the budgets they have for individuals, go towards their travel expenses to and from their voluntary placement.

Volunteers are not free labour and should never be viewed as such, it costs real money to recruit, train, support and manage them. Full cost recovery is a term bandied about in the UK. Full cost recovery is recovering the total costs of your project or activity, including the relevant proportion of all overhead costs. Understanding the full costs of projects, or services, may not result in full cost recovery every time. However, calculating the full costs enables you to understand the exact level of funding you require. It also provides a clear picture of how a particular project draws on the shared resources of your organisation. When putting together a volunteer program the full costs are rarely fully funded / recovered but to my mind, top of the priority list should be volunteer travel expenses.
I hate using the financial argument to justify the importance of volunteers but I will indulge in this for a moment. If their work was paid for by the hour using whatever salary amount you wish (minimum wage, average wage) it is never ever going to be anywhere near the cost of a bus fare or vehicle mileage.

Most definitions of volunteering state it is a contribution of time and volunteers should not be expected to inadvertently volunteer their own money as well, without choice to do so.
By saying ‘but they are volunteers’ does not justify the argument to not cover their out of pocket expenses. In doing so we run the risk of making voluntary work a pursuit of the financially elite, an activity you can engage in if you can afford it and we restrict ourselves from the wealth of untapped potential and skills and the opportunity to grow our volunteer workforce.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

How volunteer management can make you sick

Working as a leader and manager of volunteers can be an all consuming role. We get involved in the lives of our volunteers as well as the politics of our organisations as we constantly try to push water uphill in our efforts to get support and buy in to the volunteer programme. Our work can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. It can leave us wondering why we do it and feeling ill at the thought of another day.

Cheerful huh?

Sometimes we need a reminder of why this is one of the greatest jobs in the world. That's why I want
to look at why volunteer management can make us sick.

Working with volunteers can be highly rewarding. If we step out from behind the bureaucracy and paperwork that has come to define what we do, we can reconnect with the core essence of our role - dealing with people. As someone put it recent, working with volunteers is a contact sport.

Through the opportunities and support we provide we can see people changed. We can see confidence grow, personalities flourish, employment found, friendships made, lives turned around. And that's just the people who volunteer. There's all those who benefit from the work of volunteers too, often some of the most disadvantaged people at the edges of society.

nfpSynergy titled their recent report into volunteering in the 21st century The New Alchemy. Here's why:

"Volunteering takes that most universal of human resources, time. And it takes that universal resource, so often squandered, and makes it transformational of people’s lives. It takes a universal base asset and turns it into the human gold of changed lives."

For all those years alchemists toiled away to turn lead into gold and none succeeded. We have the privilege of seeing that success every day.

Getting people to give up their time and work for a good cause for no financial reward isn't easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it everywhere. Put simply, being a leader and manager of volunteers hones your skills at inspiring others. We get good at getting people to be there because they want to be, not because they have to be.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner summed this up well in the introduction to their excellent book The Leadership Challenge. The book is aimed at leaders in big business but this quote sums up why we Volunteer Managers are the very essence of inspirational leadership:
"To get a feel for the true essence of leadership, assume that everyone who works with you is a volunteer. Assume that your employees are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. In fact, they really are volunteers - especially those you depend upon the most. The best people are always in demand and they can choose where they lend their talents and gifts. They remain because they volunteer to stay."
That quote still inspires me today, but probably not as much as you inspire your volunteers every day.

Ok, hands up how many of you have a multi-million budget for your volunteer programme? I thought so.

Managers of volunteers have to be some of the most creative people in an organisation. Consider just three examples:

  1. We have to take the limited resources we have and turn them into the gold our organisation needs. 
  2. We have to compete against marketing and advertising budgets many orders of magnitude beyond what we have if we are to get people to give us a small piece of their time instead of anything else they could be doing - spending time with family & friends, going to the movies, watching the match etc..
  3. We have to find new ways for people to contribute what little time they have available, in flexible ways, to help meet our organisations mission.

The ability to be creative and innovative is increasingly important in our modern world where the pace of change grows ever faster and new ideas come along like busses after a long wait. Leaders and managers of volunteers have such creativity in spades. We are often heads and shoulders above our colleagues who, when faced with rapidly shifting sands, fall back on old, outdated ways of doing things to try and succeed e.g. fundraising our way through a downturn until the good old days - that they have deluded themselves will return - come back.

Sure, we don't have all the answers but we could be a key part of the solution. Stand tall and be confident in your creative talents.

In her seminal book, From The Top Down, Susan Ellis talks about leaders of volunteers being the only people in an organisation, other than the CEO, who have an overview of almost everything that the agency does. We have to because we probably support the engagement of volunteers across the whole organisation (or does it just feel like that some days?).

In another of her excellent books, The (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management, Susan (and co-author Katherine Noyes Campbell) list out in detail the scope of the role of a Volunteer Manager. It runs to multiple pages and illustrates clearly how we have to be Jacks (and Jills) of all trades and masters of many (if not all) too.

For anyone in a volunteer management role we should never underestimate how much skill, ability and knowledge we amass in our work. That's not to say we should be arrogant know-it-alls but we should revel in having and growing a breadth and depth of knowledge about working in the nonprofit world that few others will ever gain over many years of experience.

So there you have it, volunteer management can make you sick.

You can see success every day.

You can be inspirational to others.

You can be a creative genius.

You can be a hugely knowledgable asset to your organisation.

Next time you feel ground down by what you do, think on those four things and I hope you will regain some of your motivation and drive.