Tom Sawyer was wrong

This branch of Habitat for Humanity has chosen to charge volunteers for the privilege of helping out.

When the Nonprofiteer pointed out that volunteers give more readily to the agencies they serve than non-volunteers, she wasn’t advocating admission fees.   Volunteers may have paid to paint Tom Sawyer’s fence, but Twain’s point was that they were stupid.  Your volunteers aren’t.

Even if mandatory “contributions” (oxymoron watch!) weren’t offensive in suggesting that volunteers’ time has less than no value, they’re practically the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish: people will pay what you require (or not) and then regard their giving to the agency as being done for the year.

Or forever.  Please stop this idea before it kills again.

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4 Responses to “Tom Sawyer was wrong”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    I agree completely, but am also conflicted.
    An organization I know charges its board members “dues” (they actually call it that), which is in reality, a minimum charitable contribution. The result is that most members give the prescribed amount, not more, regardless of their capacity. That same organization has a support group that actually costs the organization more to house and staff than it brings in. The members are not charged dues, nor are they expected to give. Some members give; many do not.

    I’m also a member of a number of support groups for organizations that charge dues to cover the costs of their social activities, operations etc. These groups raise a good portion of the organization’s operating budget through events that are largely volunteer driven. Somehow the dues seem reasonable in this case. There are clear expectations of the volunteers, including covering their own costs, so that the full proceeds of the events go directly to the primary organization.

    What do you think about board minumums and dues for volunteer support groups?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I am strongly in favor of requiring Board members to contribute to the organizations they govern, and I endorse the adoption of a minimum gift simply so everyone knows what’s expected. These are not dues and shouldn’t be called such–as you say, that encourages people to think that nothing more is owed to the agency, whereas a minimum Board contribution is clearly just that, a minimum. The rationale for Board contributions is simple: the people who are responsible for assuring that the agency has the necessary resources should add to those resources themselves.

      “Support groups” (Advisory Boards and the like) which cost “more to house and staff than [they] bring in” should probably be abolished. But it depends on the function: if the role of the Advisory Board is to associate the organization with high-status people, then it’s worth some money to make those people feel connected. If the role is to have somewhere to put governing Board members who have become dead wood, ditto. But if the role is explicitly to raise money, an Advisory Board should be judged like everything else: according to whether it performs its function. If not, it should be abolished.

      Support groups which choose to offer recreational or social opportunities to their members should certainly be free to charge for the cost of those opportunities, whether in the form of admission or dues. Your gut response–that those dues are reasonable–is based on an understanding that one should be willing to pay for benefits to oneself. But that’s why minimum Board contributions shouldn’t be called “dues”–they don’t represent a payment for benefits received but a pledge of current and future benefits conferred.

  2. Katherine Says:

    It’s like Earthwatch, then, and a number of other (often, environmental) charities or organisations with charitable status (e.g., in the UK, the National Trust and BTCV) which charge vols to go out and Do Stuff as a sort of working holiday scheme.

    I wouldn’t have thought HFH was much of a holiday excursion but presumably this enables people to go away from home and write off the trip as a charitable expense.

    Not saying it’s right or wholly wrong but that it’s a well-known wheeze.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      The distinction you make is essential, I think: it’s one thing to pay for a holiday excursion which includes service work (I’d do that myself) and another to be charged for the privilege of spending Saturday in your home town building someone’s house. The mandatory-contributions idea is the imposition of a local chapter, so it doesn’t have the tax or glamor benefits of service travel.

      You’re right, though, that this is merely the latest variation on an old idea; but like many things, what’s reasonable and appropriate in one context can quickly become unreasonable and inappropriate if it’s moved out of context.

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