Defining volunteer value

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, about 64.3 million Americans, or 26.8 percent of the adult population, gave 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service worth $171 billion in 2011. Even taking in account that there’s a lag time in how these numbers are collected at the state level and then compiled nationally, these are staggeringly impressive numbers.

So how much of this $171 billion can your organization claim?

For all the emphasis today on defining, collecting data on, and reporting impact, too many nonprofits don’t spend enough time calculating the value of what their volunteers provide. As you have probably learned, this is an important number you’ll need in grant applications; it can also be a great piece of data in marketing and media work. Here are some considerations.

1.    Counting bodies. At the very least, make sure you track how many volunteers you have in the course of a budget year. And even within that number, you can begin to make a differentiation, i.e., “More than 200 local volunteers supported our operations last year, 20 of whom served as board members at a monthly rate of five hours, another 32 who filled weekly, four-hour shifts all year long; and an additional 96 who helped us plan and produce our annual community fair.”

2.  Estimating hours. A board member who attends a two-hour board meeting each month probably also sits on a committee, reads materials in advance, travels to/from the meetings, and completes other tasks for you such as phone calls or representing you in other outside meetings or appointments.

3.  Defining this value in dollars. Here’s where this starts to get interesting. Independent Sector averages hourly earnings and publishes them each year for each state, based on the earnings of non-supervisory workers on private, non-farm payrolls collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. In 2012, this national average hourly rate that is suggested for volunteers was $22.14.

4.  Does a volunteer’s role for you match his/her professional expertise? If you have an attorney who volunteered to help plan an event, of course you can’t compute this hourly value at her professional billing rate, but you can use the Independent Sector rate.

5.  On the other hand, if an attorney provided pro bono legal service, would you have purchased this service if it hadn’t been donated? If so, you may be able to reflect the value of an unpaid professional in your financial statement. The Financial Accounting Standards Board ( sets these criteria and their website can help your accountant interpret these guidelines.

6.  For some organizations, there is also the consideration that you are saving on the benefits package, not merely salary, of using unpaid talent. Independent Sector estimates benefit value as an additional 12%, although for many organizations, that is conservative.

7.  Be sure to use your computations in your thank-yous, speeches, and staff meetings. Odds are good that we underestimate our total volunteer value, in hours or dollars, and it’s gratifying to see it quantified.

8.  Remember than volunteer involvement spells c-r-e-d-i-b-i-l-i-t-y. At the risk of sounding cynical, the public expects your staff to be committed to your cause—it’s their job and they collect paychecks. Demonstrating capacity based on volunteers is one of the great differences that our sector has from the corporate world. You may think this is obvious, but it isn’t—particularly to children and youth.

9.  Consider whether this paid/unpaid ratio works to your advantage in outreach and media messaging, i.e., “More than 80% of the meals we served last year were delivered by all-volunteer teams, donating their cars, gas, and time.”

10.  After all this computation, don’t get hung up in the numbers. Any passionate volunteer who provides time and talent to further your mission is priceless. Never miss a chance to tell them so.