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.


  1. Volunteering is a choice. People volunteer for many different reasons.
    • Social connection
    • To gain experience in their field of study or work
    • To gain confidence
    • Philanthropy
    • To gain experience in spoken English, if English is a second language
    • To give back to the community

    These are just some of the many benefits that people can gain from volunteering and for many, these benefits far out way the cost of travel to and from volunteering.

    Many organisations in Australia recognize volunteering efforts by providing
    • Free parking
    • Free lunches
    • Free morning and afternoon teas
    • Recognition events
    o During national volunteer week
    o End of year/Christmas functions
    • Genuine appreciation and gratitude of volunteers by volunteer managers on a daily basis
    • Meaningful tasks
    • Training
    • Opportunities for feedback
    • Nomination of volunteers for community awards

    Volunteering is not free labour and no ethical volunteer manager would ever entertain such a thought.

    The volunteers who I work with are from diverse cultural, economic and demographic backgrounds and volunteer for the many different reasons that I listed above. To suggest that somehow organisations are seen as discriminative because they don’t provide travel expenses for volunteers is ludicrous.

  2. Thanks for the comment. This is always an issue to get people talking. As Mel says, here in the UK this is a key issue around providing equal access to volunteering. Even with all the benefits you list we don't know if people are being put off because they see a financial cost they can't / don't think they can meet. That said, not everyone provides expenses as not everyone can. It's an issue that varies from country to country too and I hope Mel highlighting these different views gets us all thinking about how we do value, reward and support our volunteers most effectively.

  3. Posted on behalf of UK colleague Chris Reed:

    Before my time at my current organisation work was carried out to look at expenses as parts of the organisation pay them and parts do not. The parts that don't are our charity shops, the argument being that the role of the shops is to generate a surplus that can support our front line work with children, young people and families. I struggle with the fact that we involve volunteers in our shops who don't get expenses, yet when we involve volunteers in our work with children we do. Does this mean that one volunteer is subsidising another? All this said, we have no evidence from our volunteers themselves that this is a problem. We don't have a blanket ban on expenses within our shops, we just only pay in exceptional circumstances.

    Our research from the past showed that levels expenses claims were similar to other organisations who had a more open policy, so should I get off my principled high horse and accept that culturally volunteers are far more pragmatic than say a decade ago. Everyone recognises that in times of austerity we can't go on as we used to. I was therefore disheartened to hear at an event recently of a tiny volunteer led group unable to pay expenses due to their financial situation being denied the support of a Volunteer Centre because the VC would only recruit volunteers for organisations who pay expenses.

    We have to remember that volunteering doesn't exist in a bubble. It, and the people who do it, form part of the fabric of our society and society changes. What we as 'professionals in the field' (at least I'm the UK) may have held dear may no longer be as relevant to the the volunteers of today. The other thing to consider of course is all that volunteering that goes on in communities throughout the country and indeed the world where people just come together to make stuff happen, usually with no 'volunteer coordinator', little or no funding and which, if we applied our principles to it would fall outside of our definition of 'proper volunteering'. For me it's this stuff that really makes the world go round and as someone who does that on a regular basis I've never been paid expenses!

  4. I fully agree with Mel's comment that not providing 'travel expenses' as an option is actually 'financially discriminating against a huge group of individuals who are on low incomes'. Volunteering does provide a huge number of benefits to both the organisations receiving the volunteer and the individual taking part and to restrict that opportunity to only those who can afford to fund their own transport is a crying shame. I run a skilled volunteering program for Operational Research/Analytic professionals who use their skills in the third sector. As part of our initial process we ask the organisations to complete a registration form which includes signing to say that they agree to cover travel expenses incurred by the volunteer. As also mentioned, when given the option not all volunteers will claim these expenses but there are many who do. Many of my Pro Bono O.R.'s volunteers actually take annual leave or give up weekends and evenings to carry out their voluntary work and I fully support the idea that expenses should be covered and not only if the person is in 'financial hardship'.