Should giving your time translate to getting paid?

Community service is often advertised as a pinnacle of the “high school experience,” of which I am extremely intimate with now. My name is Josh Seides and I am currently a junior at Alpharetta High School in Atlanta, Georgia. Ever since middle school, I have had a knack for interesting service projects, and so I founded my own nonprofit organization, Technocademy, Inc., in my freshman year to teach senior citizens technology nationwide. Through all the ups and downs in my experience, I hope to share some of what I have learned from working in the nonprofit industry thus far.

The race for seed funding and grant giving has become increasingly heightened in the past few years. With exponentially more nonprofit organizations formulating each year and only a slow, steady rate of growth in corporate and individual giving, many executives find it extremely challenging to sustain their operations, let alone improve the quality of their activities. Through the years, people have been innovating new strategies to generate additional income, with one of the most notorious being to charge money for their efforts.

Many people commonly assume the term “volunteerism” to entail the stereotypical students helping out for free, or in their case, service hours. This view is widely outdated, as many organizations are beginning to roll out the price tag on their activities. Yet, both organizations that do charge and those that do not have logic behind their decisions.

Money to Stay Alive

“We need money for gas and day-to-day operations.” This is the defense many organizations and volunteers throw up for why they should get paid. For some nonprofit executives, it may be very tempting to give in to this seemingly pragmatic assertion. It seems reasonable that organizations should be able to at least break even on their activities. From my experience, I know that volunteering can become costly at times, whether through printing t-shirts, or renting technology equipment, or even maintaining a website. All of these factors add up in the expenditure column of the budget.

Yet, funding may be low in your organization. Often times, especially for emerging local nonprofits, it is extremely difficult to gain consumer confidence and loyalty. Therefore, it may seem that the only way to keep the operation afloat may be through charging for your services.

Obviously, to “provide the best service” dictates spending considerable amounts of money on improving the quality or scope of the organization’s activities. Just as in for-profit businesses, nonprofits have to slowly make their way up the chain, which may require some extra funding at first.

Volunteer to Volunteer

Think again about the main reason for helping others. Just as in old times, volunteering should not become a marketable product. If others are in dire need of support, what makes them able to afford to pay organizations to come in and help? To illustrate this point, take a look at the Red Cross, one of the largest and most successful organizations in the world. In its own words, Red Cross claims one of its fundamental values is voluntary service: “The Red Cross is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain” [1]. The Red Cross would never charge victims of a devastating hurricane a fee for volunteers to come in and save them. It would never mandate CPR-trained members to take payment for saving a drowning child.

Even if your organization is in drastic need of funding to operate, funneling money from your beneficiaries negates any otherwise positive effect your service might have on them. There are millions of opportunities to gain seed money, whether from various grant programs like Walmart’s Community Grant program or Do Something Grants. Yet, individuals are still a leading source of donations. While it may take a while for your community to warm up to your case, it seems like a significantly more moral decision than taking needed resources from the very people your organization strives to support. In recent studies, it has been found that 72% of charitable donations come from individuals, totaling to around $240.6 billion [2]. Targeting philanthropic and involved members of your community may be the best alternative to charging for your services.

Indeed, pooling in individual donors is a much safer and more robust strategy for increasing funding. With the millions of people out there waiting to hear about the wonderful activities of your nonprofit, it seems more logical to go and attract them than risking the chance of terminating a relationship with one of your clients because of your initiative to charge them a fee.

An organization cannot “double dip” with their volunteers. It is not ethically nor socially principled to get money and volunteer hours or recognition out of a single activity. If you need to charge for your services, do so; but do not try to portray your organization as solely focused on doing what is best for the community. As Melanie Herman of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center explains, “the definition of volunteer is grounded in the idea of service without contemplation of pay” [3].

The Reputation Game

In fact, charging a fee may harm, rather than further, your organization’s reputation. When I was just starting out with Technocademy (my organization), I was continually searching for new senior centers to expand the program to. One time, I was talking with the director at a senior recreation center, one that already had a senior technology training program in place. Yet, the center was disappointed at the other organization, as it had begun charging stipends midway through for its lessons. This illustrates how an organization took advantage of its community loyalty to make some money. While this may possibly be to make up for operations or pay for equipment, the activity should not be coined as “volunteering” anymore if it charges. This seems more like a for-profit business in its activity structure. Because of this move, the senior recreation center called on my organization, which gave lessons for free, to assume the technology training role. Instead of focusing on raising some extra funds to put back into the organization, I felt that helping the seniors in need, some of might not be able to afford lessons, and focus on providing service hours for my volunteers would be a better approach that would improve the morale of the volunteers and the local community. While this is just a minor example, it is a strong testament to how negatively the community can react if your nonprofit begins to ask for payment for its volunteering.

Keep in mind that a solid identity in the community always trumps having sufficient funds. Forcing people in need to fork over hard-earned cash would lead to a distorted image of your organization, something that will definitely prevent future donors from giving.

I can recall many times when I was volunteering with Technocademy that people would mistakenly think I was charging for the service. In every instance, the person in charge would exclaim, “Do I have to pay you for this?!” After the astonishment, I would quickly clarify. As an organization that was valued for its commitment to connecting high school students to senior citizens no matter the setback, Technocademy strives to charge nothing for its services.

In turn, this not only helped to gain the confidence of the community, but also drew satisfied, individual donors to contribute to our cause, something that occurred because of the reputation and branding we built.

Hurting your Employment

Imagine a typical high school student. He or she is sitting restless in the summer looking for a job or something fulfilling to do. And now think about what would happen if your organization came straight out and offered opportunities to volunteer and get paid at the same time. Every student in the world would come out to take advantage of this opportunity.

In turn, this scenario translates into poor service for your organization. If a myriad of students signed up to volunteer just for the “easy money,” chances are most of them are not truly passionate about serving the community. This ultimately impacts your organization, as these passionless volunteers will set the tone for the quality and commitment of your organization as a whole.

On the other hand, keeping all your activities free just for the sake of helping out will draw the people full of passion and interest in your organization’s main goal. Volunteers who sign up for activities with no compensation typically choose to do so because they have a genuine concern, and possibly some expertise, for what your organization does. Determined volunteers will eventually end up helping your organization raise more funds than charging for the service would.

Where is everyone?

From personal experience with various high school service clubs, I can tell you that most student programs are hesitant to partner with any organization that charges for its services. This is because schools need to make sure they are not criticized or accused of helping any kind of for-profit venture.

Similarly, many adult volunteers are motivated by incentives from their company, for example, like matched donations and donations for service hours. For the companies, it is imperative to make sure the organizations they are helping are passionate and selfless, focused on making a difference in the community, not their bank accounts. Even if inside some organizations that charge for services are honest and committed, the external appearance matters most to companies, as whatever partnerships they make reflect on their own professional image. This group of volunteers is especially important; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 84.23% of volunteers are over 25 and 59.20% of volunteers are employed, either full-time or part-time [4].

Keep in mind that in most cases, volunteers who are affiliated with some sort of rewards program (like Beta Club service hours for high school students and corporate giving for adults) will be your main source of volunteers. To keep them coming back to volunteer in your organization, you need to ensure that the program they work for knows the true you, the one that is committed to creating community change (and not the money “change”).

Final Thoughts

There are certainly merits to both sides of the continuing debate on payment for nonprofit activities. However, when the subject of motives comes into play, it certainly reveals one keystone statement to keep in mind: organizations cannot choose both sides of the coin; making money and creating meaningful change in the community can certainly be combined, yet more often than not lead to ulterior motives forcing themselves into the equation. This resonates poorly not just in the community, but also within the organization itself.


[1] [2] [3] [4]


NOTE: This article was originally printed in the Nonprofit World magazine.

Read more: