How Many Volunteers Can Dance on the Point of a Needle?

Posted on October 21, 2009. Filed under: 1 |

The discussion about “What is a volunteer” resurfaces every few months in the non-profit sector. Here’s my take on it:

What is a volunteer? Kernerman English Learner’s Dictionary offers the best on-line definition according to the Friends of the Reston (VA) Library Association:

Volunteer – to offer oneself for a particular task, of one’s own free will

Notice that it doesn’t indicate whether or not there is any compensation involved. The example of “How many angels can dance of the point of a needle?” which may be an interesting math problem, is usually used as an indication of good brain power being used in not the most productive ways. (I plead guilty to participating as well).

There are multiple definitions of the word volunteer, sometimes meaning absolutely no compensation, and sometimes meaning taking on an additional project or assignment, while continuing to be paid at the same base salary.

Why does this matter? It doesn’t! Other words have multiple definitions, is the non-profit community so set upon lexicographical purity that it can’t stand a word and world with multiple definitions? That doesn’t sound like the non-profit world I’m familiar with.

Depending upon the business model of a non-profit, they may be able to use unpaid volunteers or paid volunteers, licensed professionals, or some combination of all:

* The prototypical example of someone serving meals at a soup kitchen.

* For youth sports organizations, many of them waive the registration fee for the child participant if the parent volunteers to be the coach. Is the coach being “compensated” or “volunteering?” BTW, I’ve never seen a non-parent coach in this type or organization, so the $100 bucks waived as the fee is certainly not viewed as “market-rate” compensation by others.

* Professional Medical volunteers – the free clinic may have men and women who volunteer to serve their populations, but they still need to be licensed doctors and nurses in order to actually deliver the services.

* Workplace giving volunteers – The employees who plan, organize, and solicit their colleagues are paid there usual salary, but they have volunteered to take on this additional assignment. BTW, if your non-profit has a small shop development office, there is no greater leverage available than workplace giving as a means of increasing your development staff.

* Corporate volunteers in schools – The Fairfax, Virginia school system has a number of partnerships with companies and other organizations that send volunteers to a particular school once a week, or bi-weekly. One example is that the Capital One headquarters is a few miles away from a Title I school and their volunteers come for an hour a week, so the employees are away from their desk for about 2 hours. According to the purists on this discussion, they would not be considered volunteers because they’re being paid. If you ask the students or the school principal, you’ll get a different answer.


Bill Huddleston
CFC = Combined Federal Campaign
Workplace giving is subsidized, high Leverage, low Risk non-profit fundraising.


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