Hard Working: Free Labor, Not Always an Easy Sell

March 24, 2009

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Volunteers at the Northern Illinois Food Bank. (WBEZ/Adriene Hill)

As the economy sinks and the ranks of the unemployed swell, more and more people are looking to volunteer. It can be a great way to meet new people, help others in need, and get out of the house. You might think all the free, skilled labor would be a boon to non-profit organizations, but it turns out the reality can be a little more complicated.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank in St. Charles has so many volunteers these days that it's booked up for Saturdays until June. People come in to sort food and put it in boxes.

For an organization like the food bank, the volunteer influx is great. Training new people is fast and easy: a quick video, a short explanation, and off they go.

MILNE: The only commitment we ask them to make is to stay for that 3 hours. If they can come every week that's amazing. If they can come twice a week that's more amazing. But if it's once a month or a Tuesday morning this week or a Wednesday next week we work with that.

Volunteer Coordinator Tia Milne  says some of the volunteers are responding to the need they see on the news and in their community.

But a big part of the volunteer swell is made up of people who are out of a job, looking for something to do. Many with a lot to offer. It turns out they might not find a lot of organizations willing or able to use their skills.

WEISBROD: Do you want volunteers that are here today and gone tomorrow?

That's Professor Burton Weisbrood. He teaches economics at Northwestern University. He says volunteer labor isn't free for organizations. For places where you do more than pack boxes, there can be significant costs to training and integrating volunteers into a workplace. People in the middle of a job hunt may not be the best bet.

WEISBROD: Those people are not people that you want to invest a lot of time and energy in, in training them much, because the training costs you time and effort. And if tomorrow or next month or two months for now if they get a job and find something better to do, they leave.

The costs to an organization of bringing out-of-work people in as volunteers can outweigh the benefits.

WEISBROD: People who want to volunteer their high level skills are very likely to be disappointed.

BERMAN: The general rule of thumb is that a volunteer cannot do a staff job.

Shawna Berman is the manager of volunteer services at the DuPage Convalescent Center in Wheaton. Her volunteers talk and listen with residents, they deliver mail, they can help push residents from their room to physical therapy. She asks most adult volunteers for at least a 6 month commitment. The selection process is significant; it involves an interview, a background check, training and orientation.

BERMAN: I think the biggest challenge is that we have a lot of people that are unemployed. They are looking to fill gaps in their resume. They are looking for job experience, trying to gain some experience in the health care industry. So we see a lot of people who are trying to get something out of it as much as we are trying to get something out of them.

Berman says she tries to find ways for interested volunteers to fit in at the organization because she does need and want people to help out. But sometimes she has to point people to other places. In the end, she has to do what's right for her workplace.

BERMAN: It's frustrating to go through that whole process and then find out, boom, you don't have a volunteer when it's all said and done.

It's a calculation that many non-profits are forced to make. And a reality that may make it hard for the unemployed-professional to land a volunteer position that will allow her to use or develop the skills she has. Sometimes, especially in this economy, it's not as easy as walking in and helping out.

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