The Value of Volunteer Time

Basic economics says that price and supply and demand are all related. The more supply there is of something, the less you can charge for it.

So when there’s something that’s free and in good supply, why would anyone pay for it?

Which brings us to volunteer work. It’s a good thing; free labour we provide out of the goodness of our hearts to contribute to change we believe in. Ideally, we find a way to volunteer doing something we’re particularly good at.

But what if, by doing that, we’re reducing the price of the service? What if there are people out there trying to make a living doing what we’re doing for free?

They say that when you go overseas to volunteer, you must check that you’re not taking a job away from a local in the process.

Doesn’t that logic also apply to local volunteering? Say, for example, there were a young lawyer who dreamed of making a career representing charitable organizations. Imagine him studying to become an expert on non-profit law, then hanging out a shingle, only to find out that all the successful corporate lawyers in town each spend one hour a week donating their legal services to the local nonprofits, leaving no business for our newly-minted specialist.

By making it free, we may devalue the service we’re providing, and make it impossible for anyone to make a self-sustaining living of it. It seems like a slippery slope from there to a world where you can only make money doing things that don’t accomplish good, and where all good things have to be done pro bono.

And yet – I can’t quite believe we should never give our time away for free. Which leads to a dilemma – how can we volunteer and avoid this danger at the same time? Do we only volunteer when there is no for-profit option? Do we first pay for charitable organizations to hire professionals, and consider volunteering only if that doesn’t work? This one is a pickle.

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