What is the Value of a Volunteer?

Photograph of Emily Alfson, left, and Nancy Allison, STC New England Council volunteers, at InterChange regional conference, April 2016
Emily Alfson, left, and Nancy Allison, STC New England Council volunteers, at the InterChange regional conference, April 2016. Emily organized this year’s conference remotely from Detroit. Nancy has been chapter president for two years.

April was National Volunteer Month, and, as it happens, when our chapter hosted InterChange, our regional conference. InterChange took a lot of volunteer work to pull off, and I have been thinking of late about STC volunteers. Like many of you, I volunteer time and professional services to STC, at both the chapter and Society levels. STC is careful to recognize the contributions of volunteers, and I’m not complaining. But there are ways to value volunteers—in every sense of the word—beyond simply thanking them.

This is a multi-faceted question. What is the value to an organization of a volunteer, as well as the volunteer’s work? Can a monetary value be attached to volunteer work? What is the value of a volunteer to STC in particular?

First, would you rather staff with paid employees or volunteers? Actually, each has advantages and disadvantages. You can direct employees, and influence their behavior through their salary. But once you agree on working hours, you can’t ask them to work nights and weekends. Volunteers do what they feel like doing, and can stop at any time. But a volunteer can agree to work nights and weekends, in general doing things that might otherwise not get done. So a mix of employees and volunteers, such as STC has, is a good thing.

Another way to answer the question is to estimate what it would cost to replace a volunteer with a paid employee doing the same task. Here’s an example. For a number of years the Boston (now New England) Chapter employed a professional accountant as a bookkeeper. We paid a regular stipend to cover a few hours of professional service. Now, you could argue (as some did) that we wasted our money—other chapters have tech writers as volunteer treasurers. Free beats paid, right? We thought so too, until our accounts became, shall I say, disorganized. (Our records were literally in a shoebox.) We reached a crisis point and needed professional help. The bookkeeper straightened everything out, and our records became immaculate. Over time, the bookkeeper assumed more and more roles with the chapter. Gradually this person became our program, workshop, and conference registrar; our vendor, sponsor, and venue liaison; and our contract negotiator; and all for the same stipend. Since her retirement it is taking us several volunteers to replace her. I say we got a bargain! Not only that: what is in shorter supply these days, money or volunteers?

As with paying a stipend, it’s possible to assign a direct monetary value to the work of volunteers. The accepted method is to track their hours and apply an average local prevailing-wage hourly rate. The overall US average non-farm employee costs $24 an hour for general labor (such as sitting at an event registration table). But specialized labor such as web design, and anything that creates or enhances non-financial assets, is figured at a prevailing local professional rate.

What’s the value of a volunteer to STC? STC is an international association with a professional staff and a multimillion-dollar budget, so how much of an impact could volunteers make? Actually, it’s quite significant. STC is hierarchical, run by a board and professional staff that sets direction and supports communities. But almost everything at the community level is done by, and so depends on, volunteers. This includes organizing and hosting local meetings, programs, workshops, and conferences; providing content for websites; running local competitions; putting on regional conferences; and other things we haven’t even thought of around these parts. For many members, STC is communities. For this organization, the impact of volunteers is magnified.

Can we quantify that impact? Let me run some (deliberately) very round and conservative numbers. If you want to play along, look up STC’s IRS Form 990, which is public information.

  • Today STC employs a staff of ten. The normal approximation of total compensation (salary plus benefits) in the US is roughly $200,000 per employee per year, but STC is very thrifty at about $120,000. (I’m not saying they all make $120K! A few do, but most don’t.) Not counting vacation time, a year’s labor is about 2,000 hours. So the STC staff annually puts in about 20,000 hours, and costs about $1,200,000.
  • STC claims 300 volunteers. If each of us donates 5 hours per month, then that’s 60 hours per volunteer per year. Using the general-labor rate of $24 per hour, that’s $432,000, and 18,000 hours, of donated labor per year.

So STC volunteers put in almost as many hours as the staff for a third of the cost (were we paying for it). Comparing the two sets of figures shows the relative  magnitude, and value, of the work done by STC volunteers.

If anything, I underestimate. 300 volunteers works out to fewer than 3 per community. Hah! At one time the Body of Knowledge project organization chart listed 150 names. Five hours a month is a lot less than I, for one, donate. (How about you?) STC volunteers manage other volunteers, through Board-level committees, so the staff overhead for that task is low. And STC volunteers aren’t just staffing registration tables: we’re training each other through presentations, writing policies and procedures, designing websites, organizing events—all professional services. I think the actual number of volunteers, hours donated, and total value of donations are all higher than my rough estimate.

Whatever the figure, there are reasons for STC to valuate its volunteers. Generally accepted accounting principles cover volunteer services. From an accounting perspective, volunteer labor is both an expense and a revenue, so it cancels out. (Isn’t accounting fun?) However, listing volunteer hours also has the effect of reducing the relative size of other costs. The overhead of staff isn’t as great if you include the work done by volunteers. Doing so would improve our bottom line. Additionally, taking volunteer work into account would more accurately reflect the breadth and reach of the Society and amplify our impact. This matters to organizations that apply for grants; and corporations, foundations, and the US government offer various matching grants for volunteer hours to 501c(3) organizations.

While I’ve focused on value and valuation, recognition is also important. I think my casual analysis makes it pretty clear (if it wasn’t already!) that STC would have less impact, or perhaps wouldn’t even exist, without the efforts of hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers appreciate recognition, and tracking their contribution is a form of recognition. If their efforts are tracked, the magnitude of their contribution can be known. Organizations that track volunteer time can directly recognize those who put in the most.

So thank you for what you do for STC! Perhaps some day the organization will recognize your rightful status as a gold-star volunteer…

Accounting for Tech Writers

“My other piece of advice, Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, “you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
-Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

As a writer, most of my professional acquaintances are with word people, and by our own admission we word people tend to be number averse. (Did you know there’s a condition analogous to illiteracy? There’s even a word for it: innumeracy. But I give myself away…) So this post will make a lot of eyes glaze over. But financial management of an organization with a multi-million dollar budget is not at all like managing a household budget, and I had to learn new things in a hurry. A little accounting theory is important   to understand STC’s finances, and it’s something I had to learn about to function effectively as a Board member. Continue reading Accounting for Tech Writers

A Business Model for Chapters

STC has adopted a new, pay-as-you-go business model, about which I’ll write more later. STC needs to run at break-even from year to year (or a little better, so we can invest in the future). This has triggered discussion about chapter business models. Should chapters try to run at break-even? Continue reading A Business Model for Chapters

Another FAQ on STC’s Financial Situation

Q: How will chapters operate if we no longer have funds to rely on in the future?
A: You are keeping 15 months of revenue, so we’re leaving you in better shape than the Society itself! But anyway, we are committed to ensuring that the chapters do have funds for the future:

  • We plan to resume funding the chapters in 2011 using zero-based budgeting.
  • We are working with individual chapters to ensure that they begin charging (or charging more) for their programs and services. Not only will this help them to recover some of the associated expenses and get closer to self-sustaining programs, but it also will reinforce the value of the programs from which local STC members and other technical communicators typically benefit the most.
  • We are funding chapters that project a deficit through the end of 2010, to ensure their ability to deliver their planned programs and activities.
  • We will fund chapters that experience unforeseen shortfalls throughout the next year, due to situations beyond their control (for example, having to replace a projector or laptop that crashes unexpectedly).