In honor of National Volunteer Week, a Points of Light initiative currently underway, Independent Sector, a leading coalition of organizations focused on the common good, released a new value for volunteer work; more than $23 per hour. This would mean the more than 60 million Americans who volunteered about 8 billion hours last year generated about $190 billion in value. Except that’s wrong.
The value of volunteering is actually much higher.
The IS number does have a basis: it represents an average of “the hourly earnings of all production and non-supervisory workers on non-farm payrolls,” says Independent Sector. In other words, it’s a replacement cost, the amount that someone would have to pay to get the work done if the volunteer didn’t do it.
But, doesn’t that miss the point? The volunteers are who are holding up parts of America’s tattered safety-net wouldn’t be replaced if they just didn’t show up – the holes in the safety net would simply grow bigger.
Who would replace the 2 million volunteers who support Feeding America’s more than 60,000 food programs in a typical month, and who serve more than 46 million clients? Most of these programs have no paid staff at all. The value of this volunteer work equates literally to the hunger alleviated, illness staved off and lives spared — not to mention the costs of the hospital stays, arrests and other emergency services avoided.
The value of the volunteers who make up 70% of America’s firefighters is not best calculated by the replaced labor cost, but by the value of the homes, lives and property they save and the strength and resilience they lend our communities.
Likewise, valuing America’s millions of formal and informal mentors of at-risk youth based on the cost of replacing them with paid employees fails to consider the value not only to the youth in terms of increased likelihood of graduation, escape from poverty and personal and professional success, but the proven significant reductions in public costs around social services, adjudication and prison.
I actually don’t have any better solution to identifying a concrete dollars and cents number than Independent Sector has shared. Still, funders, civic leaders, non-profits and, most of all, volunteers should remember how much more than labor volunteering represents. In an era when most philanthropic investments in social safety-net programs are returning values to society of three and four-times each dollar invested, we really should recognize that the value of the work done by our volunteers is also several times more than the labor “replacement cost” of that time.