The Money Value of Time: Increasing the Lifeblood of Nonprofit Organizations

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Two months ago, I received a phone call from a nonprofit organization asking me to take a survey regarding my satisfaction with my donation. After a 30-minute dialogue, my conclusion was, “No, I would not donate again due to ineffectiveness. No, I would not recommend this organization to friends…but I would like to.”

Last month, I ended my six-month quest for obtaining the opportunity to meaningfully contribute my time to a nonprofit—unsuccessfully. To be fair, there were some opportunities to play sports with children or serve soup, and one perspective couldargue that my view of these opportunities as not “meaningful” is both insulting and outrageous. The other perspectivewouldargue I would rather volunteer my skills than fill my time—you wouldn’t expect a salesman to build a cable-stayed bridge. Why couldn’t I contribute my skills to the organization, you ask? I don’t have a position of clout in the community, nor $80,000 to contribute annually, of course! Yetcorporations are willing to pay a 24-year old kid a shade under $100,000 annually, expecting only 45 hours of work per week, for that exact same set of skills. Roughly speaking, after the 45-hour obligation is fulfilled, I’m left with over 40 hours of skilled labor to do whatever I want with—weekly.

I found my situation perplexing; nonprofit organizations want contributions from me, so long as they are contributions of money. There are roughly 1.5 million nonprofit organizations, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, vying for roughly $200-$300 billion contributed annually, which roughly equates to $100–$200 thousand per organization. Seemingly, none are vying for time, skilled or unskilled. Why will corporations pay “finder’s fees”of several thousand dollarsfor talent, but nonprofit organizations will turn it away when it is offered freely?

If there are 315 million people in the United States and the minimum hourly wage is $7.25, then back-of-the-envelope math suggests that one hour contributed from each American yearly would yield the equivalent of $2.2 billion of labor contributed towards the nonprofit sector. Under this same base logic, if every American contributed approximately 100 hours per year, or less than 2 percent of their time spent awake, the two “pies,” money and time, would be equal.Bear in mind that this is minimum wage, not average wage and not value generated. Of course, there are a myriad of assumptions factored into that calculation—too many to list—but it serves to illustrate a point; I could generate my share of the time pie in less than three weeks.

The point is that there is an untapped source of aid that nonprofits seem to be overlooking: time. Should nonprofit organizations cease fundraising? Probably not, but money is useless without time. The beauty of time is that every living soul has it, usually in abundance. It’s a commodity with global accessibility. Even the people of countries or regions with little to no money available for charitable donation have time. There are over 7 billion people in the world.Imagine how many local problems could be solved using local talent if only there were organizations to orchestrate these affairs (Hint: nonprofit organizations). People around the world are already donating some of their time. There is a certain satisfaction realized from contributing in this manner, but I believe all people seek meaningful contribution in their lives. Sometimes, all it takes is a small push in the right direction.


  • T Strzalkowski

    I understand your position, but one thing to consider is the extremely confidential nature of fundraising. There are many positions that just don’t lend themselves to the model you suggest. Volunteers tend to want to set their own hours and are less likely to stay on during a crisis or if they are unhappy for any reason. Continuity is essential to good stewardship. My solution is to apply for the job and if you are so motivated donate your salary back to the organization.

  • Ruth McCambridge

    Oh, I so disagree. What a broad brush. Much of the most important work I have ever done has been done as a volunteer and NPQ’s volunteers are literally our life’s blood! We would not be able to function without them. Look at wikipedia! I think so much of any nonprofit’s success with volunteers rests with how important we think they are to us – the degree of respect we have for them, the degree of support for their work…etc

  • lisa

    volunteers are wonderful… but they also cannot pay the mortgage, lights or gas bill..they aren’t the food we need to buy to feed people… they don’t usually want to work every day.. or at 3 in the AM at a homeless shelter all by themselves…they also can call up 5 min before you expect them to say.. they got called into work, they aren’t coming because now it is the only day they will have off for 2 weeks, etc…. we depend on our volunteers..they are wonderful..but without donations of money we would be forced to shut our doors….i think this is the same for all non profits

  • Anne Marie

    I am sorry the author had a hard time finding a match utilizing his talents. However, I think it is not fair to paint all non-profits with that brush. As the founder of a non-rofit that is completely run by volunteer labor, we GREATLY appreciate volunteers with higher skill sets who donate their time. We HAVE to have this pool of volunteers in order to survive as an organization.
    So, I completely disagree with the statement that NO non-profits are vying for time, skilled or unskilled. Some of us are THRILLED to have such skill sets available to us.

  • 0101101

    Here, here! Thank you for making these points.
    I have recently retired and have more time than money these days, but apparently volunteering to work in a capacity that would take advantage of my experience & education does not appeal to the NFP organizations I have approached.
    It’s helpful to hear I am not the only professional who has been flummoxed by this.

  • Paul Jolly

    Tyler, I am sorry you were unable to find a way to meaningfully contribute your expertise to a non profit organization. But I don’t buy the conclusion that the opportunity doesn’t exist. And I certainly do not buy the notion that a dollar of cash is equivalent to a dollar of human labor. Being as deft as you are with financial matters, I don’t really believe that you believe it, either.

    There are volunteer opportunities that allow an organization to reduce expenses, but that depends on a large number of variables lining up. First, the volunteer needs to have skills that the non profit can put to use. Second, the volunteer has to be reliable long term. Third, it needs to be a good fit, scrutinized and tested wit the same degree of intensity that an employment contract is. Fourth, there has to be a translation of skills from the sector where your expertise lies to the expertise of the non profit organization. There are questions about supervision, evaluation, satisfaction of volunteer, cultural fit, and on and on.

    There are organizations such as the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, which act as a matchmaker for volunteers. IVC does a fabulous job, and its volunteers express satisfaction to a level that would blow your mind.

    Making use of volunteer labor is a skill that some organizations excel at. Others do not. Pleas keep looking. In the meantime, I don’t think the generalizations about the non profit sector serve anyone.

  • Ruth McCambridge

    Geez – I actually do wholeheartedly agree with the author. I think, as you say, Paul that many nonprofits do not care to make themselves volunteer friendly. They assume things about what their roles can be and hoew much of a commitment they will make and too many nonprofits walk right past the valuable resource in a way that could not be more wasteful and silly. I did write about this in an article on this site called “Use it or Lose it: Frittering Awat Civil Society’s Strategic Advantage”. Money is important AND volunteer labor is worth its weight in gold.It goes way beyond reducing expenses and brings gifts like ambassodorship, connections, public shows of support and unexpected creativity but not if it is not treasured and nurtured

  • SophieB

    I understand the desire to give of your time and talent to help others, but there is a great deal more to utilizing volunteers than meets the eye. It is not as simple as welcoming all volunteers with open arms and let them do what they want with their skills. Volunteers cost a nonprofit time and money, both of which are scarce resources for most. There is no argument that occasionally these volunteers are well worth the risk, but the reality is that finding the time to orient and manage volunteers is difficult, especially if they have some very specific skill or project in mind that does not fit within the established structure. Even when a volunteer has a great idea in mind, the organization may not have the capacity for it. It may not fit within the organization’s goals and priorities or even their mission. There are also things that nonprofits do that require certain licensing and certifications that volunteers don’t have. And even if that is not the case, there still is a learning curve and the training time and expense. Skills from the for-profit sector do not necessarily translate into the nonprofit sector. There are things that nonprofits simply are not permitted to do that for-profits can and vise versa. There are things that are done differently, and need to be–gaining a good understanding of all of this takes time.

    Generally speaking when a volunteer wants to do something that they want instead of what the nonprofits needs, it’s not really a gift, despite good intentions. Not all relationships are a good match, and this is no different. It is important to realize that even as a volunteer, you need to find a good fit–between what you can offer and what the nonprofit needs.

  • John Sayles

    We also love our volunteers, but they do need to fit into our organization in a way the drives the mission. 5 hours a week from an accountant might have a great monetary value, but cannot subsitiute for a business manager or CFO. There can also be legal consequences for displacing a paid employee with volunteer labor, depending on the laws in your state. It’s just more complicated than being a high-wage person with professional skills that wants to give back.

  • John Sayles

    My unsolicited advice is to explore your true philanthropical passion, and then pursue a volunteer position in that area. It will be a job, with the same satisfactions and ocassional frustrations. It will take commitment to make a difference but the result is truely worthwhile.

  • Lynda Gerty

    Bravo on a bold, insightful and honest article, Tyler!

    At Vantage Point, we hear similar stories from talented people almost every day. In fact, we’ve coined the term “knowledge philanthropist” to refer to those who are eager (even yearning) to contribute their expertise to causes they care about. We believe organizations can exponentially increase their impact by tapping into this abundant resource… and very few are fully leveraging that opportunity.

    Over the last decade, we have completely restructured our own organization to create an integrated workforce. Last year, our staff team of 8 engaged 198 knowledge philanthropists in 245 different roles. And we just published a book (called The Abundant Not-for-Profit) to share what we’ve learned with other organizations. We’re on a mission to address this issue, and offer an alternative approach to not-for-profit mission delivery.

    So – rest assured you’re not the only one seeing this disconnect, or experiencing it first hand. I hope you (and any readers of this article) will be in touch if you’d like to chat further.

    Thanks again, Tyler.

    Lynda Gerty
    Director, Engagement
    Vantage Point

  • Tyler Stevens

    First off, thanks for taking the time to read my article.

    I think you’re absolutely right when it comes to volunteer labor. I’ve managed a few small volunteer-based projects and ran into similar issues. The point I was trying to convey in the article wasn’t “anti-fundraising”; I do believe monetary sourcing is critical in most cases. Similarly, the opening anecdote wasn’t intended to vocalize my plight so much as it was to illustrate the average person’s free time per week, and that even their unused hours can still be skilled unused hours.

    Yes, I did make some sweeping generalizations. As evidenced in other comments below, I am sure there are firms that actively seek out non-monetary donations. Likewise, maybe there are laws in place restricting the ability to acquire volunteers – I’m not an expert on labor law or the pros and cons they yield, but laws aren’t permanent. It is rather difficult to cover all exceptions without convoluting an already convoluted message.

    The point I was trying to make was an observation that nonprofits, or at least the relatively small percentage that I have encountered, seem to focus predominantly on fundraising as their provider of resources. You don’t have to wait for someone with skilled labor to seek you out and apply, THEN see if they are a good fit for your organization. The relationship works both ways – talent sourcing. Why wait for them to come to you? Seek them out. Instead of saying, “Hey, you should donate money so our organization can improve the education in developing countries,” maybe it’s a change of approach. Maybe there are people out there who want to give their time but don’t know how, or even don’t yet know that they want to give their time. Similar to selling a product no one has ever seen or heard of before; you can create demand by making people realize they want something. Find someone that you believe your organization can utilize and tell them your dream, “We believe we can increase the standard of living in developing countries by encouraging the development of educational programs and thereby mitigating brain drain; care to join us?” You’re saying the same thing, but casting it in a different light.

  • C. Miller

    Our client’s don’t need others to tell them they’re doing it all wrong. They don’t need another program invented. They need a shoulder to cry on, they need real people to take the time to listen and to pray with and for them, they need food, they need water, electricity and a roof over their heads. They don’t need their 40 hours a week taken down to 28 hours per week because of health care reform; therefore, losing their homes and having utilities disconnected. It takes money. That’s why we need donations.

    I don’t know any organization with a 24 year old kid running it and I know I don’t know anyone in the Third Sector making more than $50,000 a year, which is only after several years of giving 60 hours a week and developing a sustainable donor base.

    There will always be those dedicated volunteers that show up without whom we couldn’t even open our doors every day. But the volunteers who want to come in and change the vision or ask us to think of how their talent can be used; it’s exhausting. Just write me a check.

  • MB

    You should try the Taproot Foundation. They provide meaningful ways for your to volunteer your expertise and are in most major cities.

  • Jennifer Byram

    Non-profits also must allocate paid staff time to train and guide volunteers at their organizations. So many times, the volunteers receive training, leave, then use their skills at another non-profit organization as paid staff. In many respects, volunteers need to prove that they will stay long enough for the skills training they receive to pay off for the organization.

  • Tracey Swanson

    I certainly appreciate the frustration, but I see it similar to the frustration felt by people who can’t find employment.

    Recruiting volunteers and hiring employees is not very different. Both require significant time and investment in job definition, placing infrastructure in place, evaluating candidates’ skills and experience, supervision, evaluation, and so on.

    As others have mentioned, volunteers usually set their own hours and leave at any time with little or notice. People in positions and functions that require specialized skills are often also ones in which a great deal of damage can be done to the organization, such as financial investment and supply chain management. In positions like that, nonprofits may prefer to hire a skilled professional because they can then hold that person accountable for their actions and dictate the manner in which they should be performing those duties.

    Volunteer positions are also similar to paid positions in that you have to “pay your dues” when you start working at a new organization. Often, organizations prefer to “promote from within” for skilled volunteer positions from among volunteers who have done well at lower-risk volunteer activities and have shown that they are reliable, dedicated, and committed to the mission of the organization.

    Playing sports with children or serving soup may not seem like a good use of your skills, but among serious volunteers, these are the nonprofit sector’s unpaid internships–a way for you to prove that you have what it takes to succeed in a new organization and potentially even a new sector of the economy.

  • Deborah Missal

    There are many nonprofit organizations that recognize the value of skilled, professional volunteers who can offer a wide variety of services. The Pro Bono Consultant Program of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Volunteer Center matches individuals who want to volunteer their professional expertise with nonprofit organizations that need help with specific projects. The consultant can utilize his or her skills while giving something back to the community, and the organization benefits from the services of an accomplished professional. It does take time and resources to properly manage volunteers, however, which are not always readily available to all nonprofit organizations; those that do, however, find this arrangement to be as important as a financial contribution, if not more so. There are other volunteer opportunities listed as well at

  • Caudell P. Dunkle


    I’m in a similar position as you. However, prior to retirement, I worked most of my life in the not for profit sector. I couldn’t afford to give large donations to the agencies I worked for or managed, but I did contribute LARGE amounts of time, well in excess of compensation, working at the typical responsibilities of an Executive Director or middle manager. Like most ED’s, I recognized that any viable not for profit required leadership volunteers who could deliver influence and donations as well as volunteer “worker bees” that carried out day-to-day activities as well as planned programs and projects.

    I’ve seen a change in the culture of many of today’s not for profit management and paid staff. Let me say that I’ve also been seeking meaningful volunteer work that’s somewhat different than the missions of the agencies I once supervised. My experience is both broad and deep in specialized areas of technology and environmental sciences acquired as a lifelong autodidact, yet opportunities to “donate my time” are seemingly not available among a variety of agencies involved in this type of work. Of course, there’s no limit to financial donations they are eager to accept, but my ability to contribute is limited by a typically modest retirement income by way of past not for profit employers.

    I believe we’ve created an unsettling culture among managers and employees at not for profit agencies. Many are now over-educated in administration, financial development, conducting surveys, and climbing the ladder yet under-skilled in the practical applications required by their respective agencies to achieve their goals. It’s analogous to the situation of many of our K – 12 educators today — long on pedagogy but woefully lacking an adequate understanding of the subjects they are expected to teach. In either case, there are too many, leading too few in pursuit of ill-defined outcomes.