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The Value of Volunteers

May 22, 2014
Category: Public Participation

The Value of Volunteers

I am a volunteer. I volunteer for nonprofit organizations and a community garden in a Seattle park. People volunteer for various reasons. Motivating forces include the desire to become involved, meet new people, get together with old friends while contributing to the community, learn something new, and, in the case of work parties, maybe get a bit more exercise. I volunteer for all the above reasons and probably more.

I am required to volunteer a certain number of hours for the community garden and, like others, I contribute more than the required hours. My hours are recorded and cumulated with the rest of my colleagues and are periodically reported to the city.  What happens to those recorded numbers? Do they have value? Are they important? If so, why am I having difficulty finding quantitative information on volunteer activities in other communities?

The Search. Reviewing city and county webpages, one can find many invitations and announcements for volunteer activities, including work parties. Some are included in the home page news, some send email invites, and some are buried. Seattle park volunteers can go to a Volunteer Calendar that lists citywide events. Olympia volunteers can find work parties listed on the City Calendar. In my search, I found information on goals met using volunteer labor, lists of accomplishments with tributes to volunteers, and frequent references to “the hundreds of hours” of volunteer time donated. As one city puts it, “Every Volunteer Makes a Difference!” I found only few reports listing total hours and a dollar value of donated time.

The Value of Volunteer Time. Each year the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) publishes comparative data for states on different factors related to volunteering and civic engagement on its Volunteering and Civic Life in America website. The most recent information is from 2012. Washington State is reported to have the following:

  • 34.5% of residents volunteer (33.7% in 2011)

  • 9th among the 50 states and Washington, DC. (10th in 2011)

  • 47.1 volunteer hours per resident (42.1 hrs. in 2011)

  • 1.95 million volunteers (1.83 million in 2011)

  • 254.0 million hours of service (223.8 hrs. in 2011)

  • $5.8 billion of service contributed ($4.6 billion in 2011)

Did volunteers in your community contribute to that $5.8 billion?

The Independent Sector, a non-profit leadership group, provides the dollar value for volunteer time that many jurisdictions use as a benchmark. The estimated average value of volunteer time for 2013 is $22.55 per hour. See Independent Sector's Value of Volunteer Time

Findings. Most of the examples I found are park and recreation related statistics.  Work parties are the most frequent form of volunteer activities and attract many volunteers. Here are a few examples noted.

Seattle (Pop. 626,000) - My “lead” to Seattle information was a park blog, "Seattle Parks volunteers log nearly 10,000 hours honoring Mother Nature." In April 2014 Seattle Parks and Recreation had 105 work parties. Volunteer Programs Coordinator Theresa McEwen estimated that 3,150 volunteers donated a total of 9,450 hours of service through Seattle Parks and partner organizations. Source: Parkways, Seattle Parks and Recreation News and Events.

Additional information was provided by Dawn Blanch, Seattle Parks Volunteer Programs Supervisor, Seattle Parks and Recreation Volunteer Trends and Data. The 2013 Volunteer Programs Universe shows 384,139 hours and 42,060 volunteers in parks and recreation – at events, work parties, and assignments. Volunteer hours and volunteer counts are collected from volunteers, nonprofit partners, and staff at 357 assignments and locations twice a year. The Association Recreation Council (ARC) plans to make computer kiosks available to volunteers at every community center that will help accelerate the online volunteer reporting process.

Program changes or funding shifts impact the numbers of staff available to support volunteers in recreation and parks.  Friends group members, so active in the 1990s and 2000s, are retiring with a job “well done” on ‘their’ parks pages. Mayor’s Clean and Green, Langston Hughes, environmental learning centers, and ballfields have had staff or program changes. The long recession hit Seattle and has had an impact on parks and recreation funding.

The good news, however, is that young people under 18 are 31% of the park volunteers - twice their proportion (15%) of the population in Seattle.  Seattle’s Teen Programs section highlights the work of teen volunteers from Community Learning Centers, O2, YES, STEP, and SOS. Following a 50% cut in summer Federal funds to AmeriCorps/Vista in 2013, teens in restoration and urban agriculture are supervised and supported in their volunteer work by four FTE AmeriCorps volunteers. There is no stimulus money for this program  in 2014.

Vancouver (Pop. 164,500) - In 2013, over 5,200 volunteers donated their time and expertise to help improve the health, safety, and overall livability in the city of Vancouver. Vancouver’s 2013 volunteer program highlights include: 56,000+ hours of service donated; 14,800 native plants planted in public spaces; and 257 yards of debris and invasive plants removed from public spaces. Volunteers worked in ten departments across the City of Vancouver, including Parks and Recreation, Fire, Police, Community and Economic Development, and Public Works. This year’s effort is equivalent to $1.2 million of in-kind volunteer time. Excerpt from Press Release, "City volunteers make a big impact on quality of life in Vancouver," March 6, 2014.

Bellevue (Pop. 132,100) – I found information in the preliminary 2013-2014 budget under the Civic Engagement Program. The City of Bellevue Civic Engagement Program performs the dual role of engaging stakeholders in City programs (as volunteers, sponsors, or partners) while providing support and continuity to over 48 internal work groups offering volunteer programs (representing hundreds of volunteer opportunities) that enhance city functions at a value of nearly $3,000,000 per year. In 2011, 5,836 volunteers served 125,673 hours at an estimated value of $2,930,578.91 to the City of Bellevue. Excerpt from 2013-2014 Operating Budget, Proposal Re: Civic Engagement, October 2, 2012.

Kirkland (Pop. 81,730) – This information is from a memo to the City Manager on the Green Kirkland Partnership, a division of Kirkland Parks and Recreation.  A Table of Achievements of the Partnership provides the following for last year:  2013 Volunteer hours - 8,980 ; Dollar value of volunteer hours - $203,767.09; Dollar value 2005-2013 -$1,071,467.94. From Memorandum to City Manager Re: Green Kirkland Partnership Update, April 3, 2014.

Marysville (Pop. 62, 100) - From Marysville 2013 Accomplishments: Total volunteer hours contributed by residents through Serve Day events, Graffiti Paint Outs and other park maintenance, Parks and Recreation youth sports, community center support, and program volunteer events totaled 3,399 hours in 2013.

Sultan (Pop. 4,660) - Total Volunteer Hours Donated to the City of Sultan in 2013: 9,187 @ $22.69 per hour= $208,453 value to the City of Sultan. From Volunteer Staff Report to Council, January 9, 2014.

Conclusion. Reporting on volunteer activities is important. It shows what has been accomplished; it quantifies the value of volunteers; and it can help in budgeting and goal setting. It also can be used as a benchmark. Community engagement, which includes civic volunteering, is a measure of livability. Based on comparisons with benchmark cities, some communities are considering expanding their volunteer opportunities.  Volunteers appreciate seeing the outcome of their work and the value of their time. Perhaps there would be more volunteers if citizens could see that they do add quantitative value to their communities.

What was my contribution to the city of Seattle in 2013?   It might be approximately $450, depending on the rate used and if I recorded all my hours. This year I hope to increase my volunteer hours.

For more information on volunteer programs, see MRSC webpage, Creating Volunteer Opportunities.

Photo 'Arbor Day Volunteers', courtesy City of Bellevue

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.


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