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The value of volunteers (2017)

the strengths and unique values of volunteers, the case of UNICEF the Netherlands

In the last few years, the number of people volunteering in the Netherlands has grown once again. Almost half of the Dutch citizens volunteered at least once in 2015. While in some cases these volunteers work in a volunteer-only organisation, most of the time they share responsibilities with paid staff members. The ratio of volunteers and paid staff varies between organisations.

Based on this, three types of organisations (and many hybrid forms) can be defined; volunteer-supported organisations, volunteer-governed organisations, and volunteer-run organisations. Non-profit organisations can also be classified by their goal; mutual support, service-delivery, or campaigning.

The definition of volunteers is very ambiguous, the meaning of the word can vary between and even within countries. Most definitions of volunteers do consist of the same four dimensions; Nature of the reward, the degree of obligation, the organisational context, and the distance to the beneficiary. Based on these dimensions, volunteers can be defined as individuals who donate their time, skills, or services to an agency or organisation without obligations and without receiving direct financial compensations for their work.

Volunteers and paid staff differ in multiple ways, which is why in some cases they perform different tasks. In most cases, however, volunteers and paid staff work alongside each other conducting the same jobs.

When researching the question on whether to use volunteers or paid staff, most current research focusses on costs or availability of volunteers. Other research focusses on the value volunteers can add to the organisation’s beneficiaries. Even the value added to society and volunteers themselves are researched thoroughly.

The question remains, if cost and availability are not an issue, why would an organisation still have a volunteer pool? In other words: What are the added values of volunteers for the organisation?

This research is based on the case of UNICEF the Netherlands, a non-profit organisation that advocates the protection of children’s rights, helps to meet their basic needs, and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential. The organisation has a large volunteer base of over 2000 volunteers, and works with around 90 paid staff members at headquarters. UNICEF is classified as a volunteer-based organisation. Its goal can be classified as a hybrid between mutual-support and campaigning, although the emphasis seems to be on the latter.

Existing research about this topic is very scarce, and is mostly based on service-delivery and mutual-support organisations. However, most of this research can be translated to campaigning organisations such as UNICEF as well. Six unique volunteer values can be found in existing literature; Credibility, network effect, diversity, proximity, source of feedback, source of innovation.

The present research examines the types of value volunteers can bring to an organisation as opposed to paid staff.
First, interactive focus groups were conducted with UNICEF the Netherlands paid staff III and volunteers to explore which values they think volunteers add to the organisation.
Second, an experiment to determine credibility UNICEF was conducted, in which respondents were randomly assigned to answer questions based on either a volunteer or a paid staff member talking about UNICEF.
Third, a simple experiment where schools were invited to participate in a UNICEF event, Kid Power, by either UNICEF paid staff and/or volunteers was performed.
The results of the focus groups confirm the values based on the existing literature. Participants agreed volunteers can be perceived as more credible. They also valued the large network, diversity and proximity. Furthermore, they acknowledge volunteers can be a source of feedback and innovation. Moreover, a new unique volunteer value was added: Goodwill can be created because volunteers do not get paid for the work they do.

The two experiments did not show significant results confirming either the network effect or credibility. However, multiple limitations could be the reason for this. The credibility experiment did show a significant correlation between credibility and intention to donate From the current research, it can be concluded that volunteers do bring seven unique values to the organisation: Credibility, network effect, diversity, proximity, source of feedback, source of innovation and goodwill.

This information can be used by non-profit organisations when, for example, raising donations, recruiting new volunteers or making itself visible to different target groups.

Literatuurverwijzing: Overbeeke, P. van (2017). The value of volunteers: the strengths and unique values of volunteers, the case of UNICEF the Netherlands. Rotterdam: Philine van Overbeeke.