Should volunteers be renumerated?

Are we guilty of treating volunteers, advocates and NGOs as if they were servants at our beck and call? For example, if you need to engage someone to speak with your audience on environmental impact, do you pick up the phone and automatically expect that the speaker would do it for free and worse, give them last minute notice as if they were at your beck, call and convenience?

This magazine had spoken with several volunteers and this same theme comes up frequently.

It is nice that there is someone out there who is willing to do work from the goodness of their heart, without care for commercial gain. However, it appears the volunteers have been the subject of exploitation. The very least we could do for them, is to acknowledge that the people whom have dedicated their lives to their work…did precisely that; dedicate their lives to their work.

If you had spent many hours investing and immersing yourself into your trade of choice, wouldn’t you expect to be remunerated properly also?

I spoke with Nor Lastrina Hamid, co-founder of Singapore Youth for Climate Action and asked if advocates should outrightly ask for a fee when being called on to do advocacy work.

“It is a conflict of feelings. We should be doing more outreach, but there is only one of us. These days I will usually ask what is the size of the audience and if they have a budget.”

“Takes schools for example. They frequently ask us to give talks, but no one pays the SYCA to give these talks. But I’m happy to do these for the sake of outreach.” 

Lastrina has come to accept the nature of things as they are. The argument remains: does “charity” necessarily mean that all services provided are free?

“It depends on the purpose and the occasion. However, what is more important is that as volunteers, we maintain our professional edge. Only volunteer if you can create change, if not leave it to professionals”. This is especially so when work requires commitment, specialised skills and/or involves reputation.

So how much is an average speaking session? “Based on market rates today, companies can pay $200-$600 for a talk”, answered Lastrina.

We all understand clearly when a celebrity speaker comes to speak, it isn’t for free. If Bill Gates or Clinton comes to your event, it is automatically presumed that they will be compensated for their time. Somehow, when a non-celebrity (but no less qualified) speaks, or helps us to organise an event, we think it is free of charge.

“Government agencies can spend a lot of money to organise all sorts of events; car free days, beach clean-ups and even marathons for environmental awareness. These events can cost up to a $1m to organise. But when it comes to volunteer groups, we’re expected to do this same amount of work for free”.

Sustainability begins at the NGO’s very existence.

It needs money to run, there are bills to pay and making their keep is at the heart of their continued work. So if the work that they do is; professional, meaningful and resource intensive, there is no reason why we should see them as a cow we can milk for service


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