Cost, value and austerity – the challenge for volunteer managers

As we start 2016 so we start a new year in the ‘age of austerity’. That inevitably means further cuts to public spending, cuts within volunteer involving organisations and reduced investment in volunteer management.

As money reduces for things like training & development as well as wider resources to run our programmes so it becomes more important that we focus on the value we get from spending our reduced budgets rather than simply the cost.

I sometimes hear Volunteer Managers and/or their bosses say that they can’t justify that training course, database, item of equipment etc. because of the cost. So a cheaper option is found or nothing happens at all. But is any consideration given to the value each option would return? A training course may, for example, be free or cost less than a more expensive option, but is it a better quality learning experience? Would spending more money enable improved performance by the staff member, resulting in greater efficiencies, which in turn recoups that extra cost by delivering associated savings?

With many volunteer involving organisations having less money than before there is even more of an imperative that it gets spent on things that will return real value to the organisation. Of course, not everything that is expensive is good value or quality. I attended a wine tasting once where the most expensive wine on offer was the worst tasting. A bottle of that was neither cheap nor good value. By contrast, a bottle half the price was superb value, delivering much nicer wine.

The point I am trying to make is that we need to stop just asking how much something costs but really consider what value it will deliver too. We can then factor both aspects into the decision, not just the cost. This isn’t just a consideration when we are buying training, consultancy, office equipment or whatever. It is also a key issue when we think about the importance of volunteer management in our austerity affected organisations.

Sadly it is all to often the case that, when the income drops, one of the first things to go is the volunteer manager. That is a decision frequently made on the basis of cutting costs without any appreciation of the value of that function. But do volunteer managers quantify and communicate that value effectively so our leaders look beyond the bottom line and consider what else they will be losing if they cut the volunteer management function?

In 2009, 2011 and 2013 The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration released reports exploring the status of volunteerism and volunteer programmes in a changing financial environment. The studies showed that organisations who cut the funding for their volunteer programmes performed less well on a number of measures than those who maintained or even increased their support for volunteering.

In the absence of such research in the UK, and with more cuts coming, volunteer managers need to provide evidence of their value and articulate this effectively to their leaders. Evidence that demonstrates wider value of their role as well as the potential value to be gained from maintaining (or even increasing) investment in volunteering, especially when donated funds are harder to come by but donated hours may not be so scarce.

Are we up for this challenge in 2016?