It’s time to talk about paying volunteers

by Matt Baillie Smith, Bianca Fadel, Aisling O'Loghlen and Shaun Hazeldine | Oct 26, 2020 | Thought Pieces

Should volunteers be paid for their labour? Such a question may seem a contradiction in terms – isn’t the point of volunteering that you give time for free? 

But newly published research from Northumbria University’s Centre for International Development and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) shows that we need to rethink when, why and how volunteers receive money linked to their volunteering.

There are diverse ways in which volunteers are remunerated for their volunteering activity around the globe. This can include a small stipends that vary according to national contexts, laws and practices. International volunteers receive payments that far exceed local salaries. It is just not called a ‘salary’. Sometimes local volunteers can get ‘paid’, but it isn’t called a ‘salary’, so that whoever is ‘hiring’ the volunteers can bypass legislation on workers’ rights.

To understand this issue further, we need to move away from a focus on volunteers as affluent outsiders helping the less fortunate.

Haitham Ibrahim, SRCS

To understand this issue further, we need to move away from a focus on volunteers as affluent outsiders helping the less fortunate. Volunteers are often facing vulnerabilities or come from marginalised groups themselves – particularly but not exclusively in the global South. To be able participate in volunteering, people may need resources – for transport to where volunteering opportunities arise, for meals while volunteering or to make up for lost work. So for these groups, remuneration is linked to participation.

This is important, because donors and governments often rely on local volunteers to deliver services, aid and emergency response. They are often valued because of their local knowledge. But also because volunteers are seen as free labour. 

However, you surely cannot have the benefits of volunteer engagement from members of marginalised communities if you don’t organise volunteering in a way that addresses and acknowledges the impacts of that marginalisation on people’s lives and their capacities to volunteer?

This isn’t the same as saying people should be paid a salary – volunteering can offer a complimentary and important contribution alongside salaried roles. The sad reality is that there also often isn’t enough money for salaried positions on the scale that volunteers are being engaged.

But what research shows is that current practices in the sector are creating hierarchies amongst volunteers, impacting the long term sustainability of volunteering. Donors and governments are using diverse forms of payment and recompense to mobilise cheap armies of labour for particular projects and interventions.  This is not usually oriented to participation and inclusion, but to getting a job done quickly and cheaply within projects’ limited timeframes. But our research shows that, in the process, the structures that enable marginalised communities to take action on disadvantage and inequality or respond to crises themselves, are being undermined. 

This means some forms of volunteering – particularly those tied to donor interests and funding – become more attractive as they come with money. This can create hierarchies in different ways. Volunteers from communities who cannot reach places where volunteering is happening – or find out where these lucrative forms take place – cannot participate. Volunteers who have fewer professional skills and qualifications may be excluded as donors remunerate volunteers to effectively fulfil professional roles that in other circumstances might be salaried posts. 

The Netherlands Red Cross/Arie Kievit

All of this can undermine other forms of volunteering – such as long-term community volunteering – as it becomes comparatively less attractive. As a result, far from helping addressing inequality, donor funded remuneration of volunteering can exacerbate existing inequalities. 

This doesn’t mean we go back to saying volunteering shouldn’t be paid. Instead, we need to rethink volunteer remuneration using a livelihoods lens. 

Volunteering has been shown to improve volunteer wellbeing, as well as the lives of communities that volunteers serve. Through contributing, it may help build a sense of connection and community, and open opportunities to enhance life chances. But if this is the case, then it should not be the preserve of the well off. 

When remuneration enables people to volunteer – as well as to support the achievement of particular project goals – in locally-led, sustainable and sustained ways, this provides a different perspective that prioritises and recognises the livelihoods of poor volunteers.

Iraqi Red Crescent Society

Many donors will be unaware of how their practices are impacting volunteering. But if we want to claim volunteering can help achieve development and humanitarian goals, there is an urgent need to act to prevent the creation of volunteer hierarchies that exacerbate inequalities. 

As first steps, there is a need for stakeholders including researchers, donors, governments, volunteer-involving organisations and volunteers themselves to work together to enable:

  • Cross organisation and sector debate around the uses (and abuses) of volunteer remuneration in humanitarian and development settings, especially in the global South
  • Steps towards co-ordination and transparency between volunteer-involving organisations working in settings together
  • The development of volunteer engagement strategies that recognise the diverse livelihood needs of volunteers as well as the needs of the communities they may serve.

If you want to read more, there is a newly published academic research paper on this available and free for download here. The paper analyses data collected in Africa and the Middle East as part of the IFRC Global Review on Volunteering to explore volunteering hierarchies and inequalities. It’s now time to open up long overdue conversations and talk about which volunteers are paid, how they are paid, and what impacts has both on them and their communities.


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