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Just what is the value of a volunteer

Do organizations value volunteer Luis because he has this rare ability to look into the eyes of someone and open his being to receiving their pain? Do organizations value volunteer Mary because she drops everything and comes in when there’s an immediate need? Are all volunteers valued strictly for their volunteering? Or, do you sometimes get the uncomfortable feeling that certain volunteers are more highly thought of than others in your organization?

It’s kinda true that some volunteers are more likable than others and volunteer managers have a challenge to overcome when staff doesn’t like a volunteer (see When Staff Doesn’t “Like” a Volunteer). But, besides likability, are there other reasons some volunteers are regarded more highly behind the closed wooden doors of organizational structure?

Does a senior manager get all giddy when a volunteer bequeaths money to the organization (and then stands at your desk with a big smile spreading across her amazed face and says something like, “well, we would have gone to his funeral, but we didn’t know, why didn’t you tell us he died,”) or when a volunteer pays for that new tech equipment or that fridge for the employee lunch room?  Does the board go all a-twitter when they find out one of your volunteers is the mother-in-law of a famous actor and they are high-fiving each other because they just know your volunteer will use her mother-in-law powers to badger this actor into endorsing the organization? (I always kept this type of information buried deep in the secret compartment of my brain, it’s the one where I picture myself as the first officer aboard the star ship Enterprise, ooops – what I mean is they couldn’t pry it out of me if they tried)

What if a volunteer is married to a prominent lawyer or a politician, or someone who owns the swanky hotel where they have that fabulous banquet hall? Or what if a volunteer has loads of money? Does that volunteer suddenly get the VIP treatment?

Maybe it’s subtle, but it’s there. Does the volunteer who is an absolute master at soothing clients’ hearts rate the same status or visibility as the volunteer who donates substantial money?

Ok, ok, I’m being critical, and this is really all about human nature anyway, aka, the “what can you do for me,” expectations we all have. So, if volunteers who donate or bequeath or have connections seem to get better treatment, why don’t we, volunteer managers just use that to our advantage?

Here’s what I propose:

Let’s equip every volunteer with a name badge that teases their potential value beyond the amazing volunteer work they are doing.  For example:


“Oh Mary,” a fund-raising specialist would say after reading the name tag, “I heard you just had a birthday. If you don’t mind me asking, I mean, you look so wonderful, how old are you again? Eighty-seven? Perfect.”

or maybe this one…


“Oh, Jamal,” the social media expert would say as he stopped Jamal in the hallway,” tell me about your family. That’s nice that you have an older brother…. what does he do? Really? In Hollywood? I mean, your last name is, and well, you couldn’t be related to…oh, what, really you’re HIS brother? Bam! I knew it! I mean, how nice…”

or even this one…


“Kameko,” the harried chief financial officer would coo after going over the financial report, “what adorable shoes you have on. From Italy, oh? You bought them the last time you went there? You travel extensively, I see… and your lovely engagement ring, it is so, so enormous…”

or maybe a general one might just do:


I remember the day my organization got a sizable donation from the best friend of the recipient of our help. It turned out that the best friend was a well-known celebrity. Everyone was surprised at the gift and then a bit relieved that we all had done a good job. I mean any one of us, volunteers included, could have blown receiving that donation.

There was the usual, “you never know, the person you are serving just might turn out to be someone famous,” talk as if the result of good work is not the work itself, but what it can produce.

Organizations might get more excited when volunteers have a little extra something to give. Do they donate? Do they have influential contacts?  Will they leave money when they die?

We, volunteer managers need to remind everyone that volunteers are there to further the mission, whether or not that volunteer has money or influence.

But the takeaway is this: Volunteers who experience meaningful volunteer engagement and feel integrated into the organization always give more than their volunteer hours. Always.

That means treating all volunteers as if they have money or influence lest they go elsewhere. And organizations might not want to take that chance.



This is an update from a 2016 post: Eureka, I’ve discovered the value of a Volunteer!