Myth Busting: Why volunteers aren’t free

main.jpgHow many times have you heard this in your nonprofit workplace?

“Of course volunteers are free. We don’t pay them.”
“You’re overwhelmed? Just get a volunteer to help you.”
“Doesn’t spending money on volunteers defeat the purpose?”

The notion volunteers are free is a common misconception both in and outside the nonprofit world. While many of the costs associated with volunteers aren’t directly monetary, there are costs nonetheless.

This may sound pessimistic. Am I encouraging you to stop engaging volunteers because they’re too costly? Absolutely not! But if you fail to recognize the cost of volunteers, you’re setting yourself up for a bad experience – for both you and your volunteers. You need to plan for the tangible and intangible expenses involved in order to ensure the service of your volunteers is meaningful for them and beneficial for your organization.

What are the costs of volunteers? Here are a few:


By the time you realize you need volunteer help on a project, you often need that help NOW. Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic volunteer lamp you can rub and – poof! – your perfect volunteer appears. It’s going to take some time to find a volunteer with the right availability and skills for your role. During that recruitment period, you’re forced to either trudge ahead on your own or put the project on hold until you get help. The bottom line is volunteers aren’t an immediate solution to your nonprofit woes, and the waiting period is a cost that needs acknowledgement.

Staff resources

Even the best volunteers need training, direction and supervision. Most of the time, paid staff provide supervision. If you manage volunteers, you know it can be a time-consuming endeavor. Don’t get me wrong – the time you spend with volunteers can be very enjoyable. And most of the time the benefits (the work volunteers complete) far out way the costs (your time supporting them). While the return on investment of utilizing volunteers is great, the ongoing investment of your time and support is critical.


Many volunteers help out once or twice a week. This means they’ll need catching up when they arrive and you’ll need updates from them before they leave. Good communication is essential, and any situation that requires increased communication lends itself to inefficiency. The back and forth of questions and updates is time you wouldn’t spend if you simply did the project yourself.  Utilizing a volunteer likely means the project will get done faster, but the inefficiency may mean fifteen hours of project time between you and a volunteer only amounts to twelve hours of productive work. You’ll need to plan accordingly.


There’s the obvious: An office volunteer needs a desk, computer, phone and basic office materials. For some organizations this is available, and for others it’s a struggle. Volunteers may also need job-specific supplies, mileage reimbursement, or branded clothing to represent your organization. Add in the things volunteers don’t need, but are essential to showing appreciation and keeping retention rates high. Recognition activities like lunches, giveaways or awards – while often done on a tight budget – are a necessary cost for most successful volunteer programs.

So, no, volunteers are not free. But isn’t it worth investing in something that pays you back at an estimated $21.79 per hour? Recognize the costs. Plan for them. You’ll be taking the first step toward a thriving volunteer program

What hidden volunteer costs do you have in your organization?

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