Anyone who has heard us at VQ Volunteer Strategies talk about the importance of measuring volunteer impact has undoubtedly heard us say, “We have to get beyond counting hours!” In fact, most people have heard us say that many, many times. And, yet, while the field continues to develop more robust and profound means to measure and communicate volunteer impact, it is worth bearing in mind how important hours can be in measuring and communicating volunteer involvement in certain situations including disasters such as hurricanes that all-too-often batter our coasts – though it is no easy calculation!
At a recent regional conference of America’s Service Commissions, I was presenting multiple methods for measuring volunteer value including the wage-replacement model (a process of utilizing dollar values for volunteer contributions that align with what it would cost to hire someone to do that work*). As I often do, I explained how this model can present a more realistic financial value for volunteer hours within a single organizational program but cautioned the room that it is too big an undertaking for most organizations to conduct an enterprise-wide analysis of that type. This is when Taylor Wolter, the Disaster Services and Outreach Officer with OneStar Foundation (the Texas state service commission) spoke up.
Taylor modestly explained that, in fact, he had undertaken such an endeavor for the disaster response volunteers across the entire state of Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. He reminded us of the vital role that providing financial values for volunteer hours plays in ensuring that locally affected communities receive reimbursement in federal disaster aid. Those dollar equivalents are considered community matches in disaster reimbursements.
I recently reconnected with Taylor to learn more about his monumental efforts and gather advice for others who are grappling with tracking hours.
Given Taylor’s experience in both the private sector and as a part of the Texas Conservation Corps (a specialized disaster response group within AmeriCorps), he was hired about a month after Hurricane Harvey. His first task was to clean up and streamline the collection and tracking of volunteer hours throughout the state. At the time, Texas and FEMA were dealing with three back-to-back hurricanes, 50 Volunteer Receptions Centers (VRCs) in Texas alone, and tens of thousands of volunteers contributing time to the response and clean up. Each VRC was expected to report to the Joint Field Office daily or weekly with compiled volunteer hours. Millions of hours were being tracked via … (you guessed it) Excel spreadsheets.
Taylor pulled together a team to spend an intensive two-day audit that surfaced a few glitches in the system, cleaned up the data, and then spent another two weeks ensuring the information was accurate before publicizing corrected reports of the 2+ million hours of volunteer time already contributed. They also worked to develop and distribute guidance on how to track and report consistently not only around the volunteer hours, but also donations management. The value of skilled labor (from driving forklifts to providing childcare) together with the donated items (from clothing and food to lumber for rebuilding) were crucial to the local communities. Those dollar values are a match that goes towards the public assistance each community can expect to receive in reimbursement.
Taylor and his team continued to collect, audit, and communicate this data for six months, at which point the state shifted to long term recovery plans and the Texas Division of Emergency Management took over the data collection.
Recognizing that tracking hours is still a central part of many organizations’ efforts to track and communicate volunteer impact – whether because it ties into local reimbursements or simply because that’s how leadership or funders seek to demonstrate the impact – we asked Taylor for his advice around tracking hours across a large, multi-site enterprise. Here is what he shared:
- Make it easy. The easier the tracking for the volunteers and the reporting for the local sites, the better.
- Standardize it. Be clear that you want reports in hours (as opposed to days or FTEs, for example). Also, create easily accessible standardized forms that can used by large organizations such as a metro-wide food pantry as well as a small mobile food pantry parked in a church parking lot.
- Invest now in refining the systems and learn from others. With the frequency of natural disasters and the need to track and report on volunteer service rising, we have an opportunity now to refine the systems and make them better by talking to each other, learning from business and other sectors, and getting it right.
In other words, while we at VQ Volunteer Strategies recommend in most cases that we should be tracking and communicating volunteer involvement beyond just hours – looking and outcomes and impacts for the mission of the organization – we also recognize that there is a time and place to track and report hours. Given that, let’s make those hours (and the tracking systems) really count!
*For example, in the wage replacement model, if you have a volunteer who happens to be an attorney, the hour that volunteer spends picking weeds in a community garden would be valued at a much lower rate than an hour from same individual providing pro bono legal services.