The differences between volunteering and working for free

Is volunteering the same as working for free?

No. It it is not.

I have been a volunteer coordinator for over a decade, and it always surprises me when I see people posting volunteer requests when they are actually seeking free workers. It also saddens me when industry members make fun of genuine calls for volunteers and point them out as free work request when they aren’t. In the age of “exposure as payment”, it is super important for team coordinators to understand the difference between what volunteering is and what it is not.

For starters, not all volunteer-related work is unpaid. Nonprofit organizations often hire volunteer coordinators who are compensated for their volunteer management services. Some organizations also have full-time volunteers who receive an allowance for their work, as it happens with Doctors without Borders.

There are also more differences between being a volunteer and being an unpaid worker which are rooted in the “why” (as Simon Sinek would say), or the reasons that motivate someone to spend their extra time working for a nonprofit.

A woman balancing the scales of justice - volunteering or working for free?

Volunteers believe in the goal

One of the main reasons people decide to sign-up for volunteer work is that they believe in the mission of the organization they are supporting. For example, people who like dogs might be interested in volunteering for their local animal shelter. On the other hand, people who decide to work for free may not believe in the main goal and their reasons for signing up are not linked to a long-term vision. Sometimes people work for free because they need the experience to polish their skills, build a portfolio, or network.

Volunteers feel that their contribution is a choice

Even though it may be hard work, volunteers choose to help – they have no obligation to be there, but they chose to.

Although volunteer tasks can (and should!) require a lot of input from the volunteer’s side, it is important that their commitment comes from themselves not from how big of a challenge a task could be.

Receiving commands without previous buy-in doesn’t make a person feel like they’ve volunteered. It can make them think they didn’t have a say and can lead to them feeling used.

Volunteers receive something in return (that might not be money)

Volunteers are always rewarded in some way or another, while free workers are not compensated at all. In other words, personal costs are bigger than gains for free workers, and they may feel that they are paying to work and not getting anything back. Professional recommendations, exclusive event access, networking, and personal growth are some of the things volunteers get in exchange for their work. I’ve seen how these things make people feel valued and compensated, even though it wasn’t a check.

Volunteers feel a sense of achievement

No matter if it’s the closing number of a music festival or the end of a bake sale when a volunteer gets things done (as in 100% finished), they feel a sense of success and fulfilment which is linked to their belief in the organization’s mission. This is not the case for free workers, who may feel exploited and empty when they are done doing their part.

Volunteers feel welcomed to return

Since they are working on something they love and they are valued for it, volunteers feel compelled to return. In other words, they enjoy working with a purpose. Free workers, unfortunately, learn not to offer their work for free again.

I hope this clears up any doubts you may have between volunteering and working for free. If you are able to tell them apart, then you will be able to build and lead an organization that is built to serve not only its end beneficiaries but also the volunteers that make the organization’s work possible.

Don’t look for free workers, recruit and grow your volunteer team!