Time – raising, banking, dollars

I’ve been thinking about the concept and value of time, in relation to volunteer and community development initiatives. How does our feeling of a ‘lack of time’ impact on our decision to volunteer or not volunteer? Volunteering, in definition, is the act of donating ones time (and self – skills, personality, ideas etc) to a cause. While there are usually implicit and explicit benefits to volunteering (for example. networking opportunities, change to improve a skill, job reference etc), volunteering in definition is about giving ones time freely and without pay or compensation.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to some other models of citizen engagement, where time is seen more of a valued ‘commodity’. Two examples to ponder. 1 – Framework Foundation has the Timeraiser event – I am a huge supporter of this organization and initiative, which is one of the most innovative initiatives that I have witnessed around volunteering. The Timeraiser is an awesome event – part volunteer fair, part art auction, where participants meet and match with non-profit agencies where they could potentially volunteer. The clincher is that participants bid for art, but not with money but with time. If they win the art auction, they can only receive their art piece when they have completed the time that they committed to.
2. The other example is the project of ‘timebanking’ which exists in USA and Europe, but I don’t believe in Canada. I don’t know a lot about this yet, but I want to read more. It’s interesting to note that I’ve been working in the field of volunteer management for over ten years and have read widely on volunteer practices, but haven’t come across this project of timebanking. I believe that is because it is seen as almost diametrically opposed to volunteering, where time is donated freely. Timebanking is a grassroots bartering system, where time (and skills) is a valued commodity and a medium of exchange between individuals in a community. Timebanking is really built on community development concepts, that every individuals has assets, that assets are far more than just money, and that sharing assets is the key to community building. I need to read more on this to understand.
Is traditional volunteering, the idea that we give freely of our time without the expectation of anything in return, coming to an end? And is this necessarily a bad thing? Has this traditional concept of volunteering led to exploitation, a hierarchical system of paid employees versus unpaid employees within the non-profit sector that works against goals of social justice? Perhaps its time that we look at other models of citizen engagement, one where time is truly valued.

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Organizational structure for volunteer engagement – HR or Donor development? Two models to consider:

Through my 10 years of doing volunteer management, I have been curious about how volunteer management is structured within organizations – who plays this role and where is the role placed within an organization. I have seen that usually the role is either grouped with HR or with donor development. In my mind, the choice of one or the other is significant, and has consequences in terms of how we view volunteers in that organization.

In the HR grouping, the organization is viewing volunteers as comparable to employees, as ‘unpaid employees’ per se. There are strong advantages to this perspective – ideally, this would mean that volunteers are considered to receive all of the benefits that paid employees receive (outside of pay)- including for example, budget for holiday parties, enough resources like space and computers for volunteers to work, professional development opportunities (and this I have not seen in practice ever – a PD budget for volunteers – wouldn’t that be wonderful!). Beyond benefits, if volunteers are considered equal to employees (just not paid), then they can do any of the work that paid employees can do (so they don’t just get the crappy jobs, which is usually what happens) and they receive the same communications and are asked for feedback in the same way as paid employed. If this happens, then volunteers would be as or more engaged than paid employees (without a paycheck, their passion for the cause as well as other benefits like feeling meaningfully involved, is what keeps them retained). The downside of this, I see, is that volunteers would need to be evaluated in similar ways to employees, especially if there are budget implications to benefits such as a PD budget. What if a volunteer isn’t as strong as another volunteer or as a paid staff? Would there be competition and a feeling of judgement? I’m not sure if this makes sense in my view of volunteer engagement being accessible and an opportunity for citizen engagement.

In the donor development group, volunteers are considered as donors, but instead of donating their time, they are donating their money. From this perspective, volunteers time donation is top of mind for all employees, and therefore time can never be taken for granted. From this perspective, volunteers are completely different than employees and external ‘stakeholders’ of the organization. The engagement strategy including for example communication and recognition would be tailored to each group of volunteers. From this perspective, ideally volunteers experience volunteering would be excellent and transformative and would inspire them to keep volunteer and encourage their friends to volunteer. They would become ambassadors of their organization and volunteers for life. When they have extra time, they would give their extra time to volunteer. They would not be embroiled with the inside politics or difficult dynamics happening internally, but they would ALWAYS see the best side of the organization.

I think I believe in number 2 – the donor development grouping. I love that this perspective means that the ‘donation of time’ is front and centre, and because of this, our engagement and the experience of volunteers is critical. Time is so precious, when we have someone willing to give of their time, we need to hold it near and dear and we need to look critically at how our organization works with volunteers.