The UK Debates the Hidden Costs of Volunteering

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July 18, 2011; Source: Morning Star | The UK is apparently having a policy debate about the utility and cost of volunteerism. Like the Obama administration’s heavy promotion of volunteerism as a central component of high profile programs such as the Social Innovation Fund, the “big society” plan of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government puts an emphasis on voluntary activity. 

This Morning Star op-ed pundit asks, “Why does a charity devoted to reducing poverty and suffering in the world not feel able to at least pay the minimum wage to those working in its shops?” He raises a few arguments offered by the charities — that volunteer labor lowers operating costs and “enables more money to be sent out to poorer people in other parts of the world” and that volunteering in an office might “lead . . . to a full-time paid job in the longer term.”

But the writer is fundamentally concerned about the replacement of paid employees with free labor, for example, “the case of the person put out of work due to cuts but whose role has been taken by a volunteer.” He says that the big society “public relations spin . . . on this idea is that of the middle-class person able to give up a few hours a week to volunteer at their local library or in some other public service.”

In contrast, he believes, “The real concern about the big society is that it is all about a variant of volunteers replacing paid workers . . . It does not value the work of those being replaced and seeks only to make savings on public services.”  Volunteerism advocates might not like to hear it, but economic studies do show that volunteers sometimes displace paid nonprofit employees at lower skill and job grade classification. 

The Morning Star writer concludes, “It is a very basic right to receive a wage for work done. Not paying a person for their labour costs somewhere along the line, whether it’s the Oxfam shop or the volunteer-run library.” My opinion is that volunteerism is a matter of individual choice, but when government — either in the U.K. or the U.S. — thinks it can short-change nonprofits because they can lower their costs by relying on volunteers, that’s wrong, short sighted, and damaging to the nonprofit sector.—Rick Cohen