Who Cares To Count?

Waste of time to count the time
Volunteering is about contributing, not about logging hours
Hamilton Spectator, April 16, 2015
By Randy Kay

I have been a volunteer. I am a volunteer. I will be a volunteer. I work as a co-ordinator of volunteers. I work with volunteers.

I’ve volunteered on campus radio for almost 10 years of my life. I’ve organized public events, protests, written about issues for blogs and small newsletters, served on a board of directors, I’ve even helped coach my daughter’s soccer team. I could almost equate “worthy” and “fun” with not getting paid, such is the value of my experience.
I agree with measuring and using data to evaluate many things: Volunteer hours, not so much.
Secondary school students are forced to commit to 40 hours of volunteer hours in their four years at school, sardonically known as “voluntold.” Measuring those hours is vital for their success, they won’t graduate without them. But — never mind that being told to volunteer negates the meaning of the word — the conscripted are not going to get full payback for their time in service. Bringing a class of 40 kids to a tree planting can result in a bunch of recorded hours, but what is the experience like for those who don’t want to be there, or are only there to put in time?
It’s easy to count hours if your job is to sit at a table: if you are there from 3 to 6 p.m., that’s three hours. End of story. But doing creative work, designing, writing — do coffee breaks or naps count? Inspiration isn’t something you can just pick up like a stick, though some inspiration hunting is recommended, stick or no stick — but that would be time spent hunting, which should be counted, right?
I had a very talented volunteer design a beautiful event poster. A few days after asking her, she sent me her first draft. I suggested some minor changes, and a day later I was printing them off for other volunteers to put up around campus, and posting them online.
Do I have to ask her how many hours it took to make the poster? Does that include thinking about a design? Fifteen seconds of inspiration on a bus ride? Did she sit down and do it all at once? Will she really capture the time it took? Does it really matter?
I routinely cringe a little when asking volunteers to self-report their hours. Why? Well, beyond the fact I don’t really care, I don’t think it matters. Length of time is no measure of success nor is it a way to understand the scale of a contribution. It’s just another thing they are being asked to do, a creeping bureaucratization. Some funding partners require hours to be reported, and they attach a monetary or in-kind value to the increments marking out our days on Earth. How much is fudged upward to impress or to balance a spreadsheet? Is there a differential between a low-skill task and a high skill, creative endeavour?
My volunteers contract to do a particular job, with zero compulsion. Sitting at a table is a job. Making a poster is a job. Interviewing someone and writing an article is a job. Recording and editing a video is, too. Acting like the time spent doing one or the other is the same belies the fact that they are all so different, yet all so necessary. It demeans both the asker and the asked if it’s just about quantity. I prefer to take what the volunteer contributes and simply, authentically, thank them for it. This way we count contributions as completing a given task within the allotted time, and to a satisfactory level. We can — perhaps subjectively, and only with a risk of alienating — qualitatively measure that contribution.
For me it’s all about that initial agreement: you say “yes, I will do that,” and you follow up to complete the task. If all you did was put up posters on bulletin boards, it is done, and done well. I don’t care if you took one or three hours to do it. In fact you could argue that the longer it takes, the less efficient you are. But for the love of Prufrock, who is going to go that route? Did you complete the job? Yes? Thank you very much!
In all the reference letters I’ve written, I don’t recall questions about how many hours the volunteer put in. It’s about character, skill, results. I’ve never clocked my own volunteer hours, and if I had to track them it would be annoying. As William Blake says, “The hours of folly are measured by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure.”
I’m for allowing volunteers to be volunteers responsibly fulfilling their commitment. I don’t want to force them to act as clerks in a bureaucracy forced upon them; who has time for that?

By Randy Kay

Experienced not-for-profit communications and citizen engagement professional

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