Volunteering: measuring what counts

During Volunteers’ Week last month an article appeared with the headline, Volunteers worth £500m to the NHS. To quote one of the opening lines:

The country’s healthcare system is being supported by 1.9 million volunteers, worth almost £500m to the NHS, according to a new study.

This prompted some discussion on the UKVPMs discussion group for volunteer managers. On one side of the debate were those who felt this headline helped to showcase the importance of volunteering to our society. On the other side were those who felt such headlines do more harm than good.

I can see both sides of the argument. Volunteer managers and others in the volunteering movement use figures like this because it speaks the language of those who make decisions over budgets: what I refer to as the language of the bean counters. Take the hours worked by volunteers, multiply them by some notional wage figure and voilà, we have a figure for the “value” of volunteers, or how much we didn’t have to pay people to do the work. So we hear stories of volunteering being worth £40bn to the economy – powerful stuff when we are arguing for more influence, support and resource.

The problem is that notional wage calculations like this do not really calculate value, or outputs, outcomes or impact. They calculate the alternative cost of an input, in this case what we might have to pay people to do the work volunteers do. This leads to problems – here are just two:

1.     Notional wage calculations suggest that if we stop paying people to do some jobs and get volunteers in as an alternative then we will save millions of pounds. No wonder some employees feel their job security may be threatened by volunteers.

2.     Notional wage calculations fail to tell the broader story of volunteering; for example how it helps the volunteer as well as the beneficiary of their service. Studies have shown that volunteering improves physical and mental health, extends our lives and even gives us a better sex life. None of that is reflected in a purely economic calculation and is surely of more value when seeking to celebrate the power of volunteering.

A far more elegant and effective alternative to notional wage calculations would work something like this: we find out what it will save the country if a young offender is helped not to re-offend (government must have data like this); we examine the efficacy of volunteer programmes to help prevent youth re-offending (e.g. a 60 per cent success rate); we link the two together to give a financial value for the outcomes of work done by such volunteers.

This may not be as simple and easy as just multiplying hours by minimum wage, but it would do a much better job of telling the story of volunteers in our society, and do it in a way that doesn’t encourage poor decision-making about what volunteers and employees should do.

In the context of the ongoing talk about measuring impact in the sector, I hope someone will step up to lead on helping us all do a better job of showing the immense contribution volunteers make to the UK. We need it and they definitely deserve it.

7 Responses to “Volunteering: measuring what counts”

  1. Habib Malik

    An excellent reminder Claire…
    What is your opinion on personal written blogs vs short video blogs? I have started using both but still a long way to go before I can draw my own conclusions. http://www.habibmalik.com

    • Claire Ratinon

      Hi Habib, thanks for taking the time to read the post.

      I think that there’s certainly benefits to using both written blog posts and short videos and much of the choice lies in the audience you’re trying to reach, the content that you’re seeking to communicate and the time you have to deliver the message.

      Written blogs are ideal for use by those who want to keep followers and supporters updated, day to day, hour to hour – and micro-blogging on Twitter is perfect for this. Creating little bursts of information allows you to keep your followers informed as soon as anything happens.

      But if you have the time and the means (ask the nearest friendly filmmaker to donate their skills!), being able to tell a story visually is a uniquely powerful way to gain support and momentum for a campaign. The power of film is remarkably effective at creating an emotional connection between a viewer and a story – and I don’t think I’m the only person who has been moved to action by being offered the opportunity to truly see what a non-profit is fighting for. And it can be a really beautiful way of charting progress, thanking supporters and being accountable. As mentioned in the article, Child’s i Foundation are a glowing example of this.

      I hope this answered your question and you found my thoughts useful!

  2. Tony Goodrow - Better Impact

    I absolutely agree with the notion that volunteer time needs to be treated differently. I believe that volunteer time should be treated as a cost, like money, and the total of the those two then compared to the value of the outputs and/or outcomes as Rob describes above.

    When an organisation thinks it has run a profitable fundraising event because they spent £10,000 (all cash) and took in £15,000, it has failed to recognize that part of the COST is ALSO the volunteer time that got spent. When an organisation does this, it is inadvertently saying the volunteer time is valued at £0. If there happened to be 600 hours of volunteer time required to make the event happen, and we considered volunteer time as a cost of £10 / hour (because I like round numbers), the real total cost of the event would be £16,000 and the event actually lost money. Remember that those 600 hours are not free and could have been spent by the organisation doing something else.

    This is part of the evidence that there is a disconnect currently between what the sector feels (“We truly value volunteers”) and how it acts (failing to recognise that they are SPENDING volunteer time).

    In the absence of treating volunteer time as a cost the sector de-values the time given by volunteers.

    There are three workshops on this being run by volunteer centres in the UK next week. See http://www.betterimpact.co.uk/learn-more/ for a list of them.

    Tony Goodrow – Better Impact

  3. @mikeriddell62

    As far as I’m aware Rob, the methodology you’re referring to here is known as ‘cashable savings’.

  4. WEAadulted .

    I would agree that there are better ways of measuring volunteering but would argue that it is more important that there is a simple, credible set of measurements which value volunteering and promote it across the public, voluntary and corporate sectors. We are calling for the Government to work with Volunteering England to establish a commission to create a single set of measurements that everyone can use. We need a transparent way of measuring volunteering to make it more credible for the public and meaningful for organisations. http://www.wea.org.uk/campaign/manifesto/value-volunteering

    • Rob Jackson

      I’m interested to see how this pans out so have signed up to be kept informed. You do know that VE don’t exist anymore though? They are now a part of NCVO.

  5. Matthew Hill

    Hi Rob,

    I really like the points you make.

    In defense of notional wage (or cost-replacement) calculations – they are easy to understand, relatively easy to collect and are endorsed by the ONS. As you say there are many limitations though – I discuss a few more on this recent blog – http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2014/06/26/its-the-economic-value-stupidbut-is-volunteering-really-worth-100bn-to-the-uk/.

    I totally agree that we need to invest in much more sophisticated and holistic ways to capture the value of volunteering. I think organisations like NCVO can do more (we are currently refreshing our Volunteer Impact Assessment Toolkit) but we also need to put pressure on government to collect the society wide data. I’ve also registered to be kept informed of the WEA campaign.


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