Volunteering for a Paid Position
November 21, 2017 10:50 PM   Subscribe

Is it appropriate to offer to work for free at a non-profit if the position is usually paid?

I'm new to volunteering and non-profits, and don't know what the expectations are! The company is a 501(c)3 organization that is doing something I believe in and want to help with. The job is part-time, and is similar to something that I do as a hobby anyway. I have a full-time+ job that supports me fine, I don't really need their money (though, I'm not rich, and money never hurts). This position is usually a paid one, and as far as I know, everyone else in the same role would be paid staff. Would it be weird to offer to do this as a volunteer? Possibly relevant: I have no intention of ever attempting to work in this industry as my career. I'm not looking for a foot in the door, I just would like to do this job, for this organization.

Optional wrinkle: if I applied for the paid position and was turned down, would it be inappropriate to counter with "what if I did it for free"? Is this sort of thing okay, or do I need to make the offer to volunteer out of the gate?
posted by agentofselection to Work & Money (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you volunteer you are setting a precedent and lowering the wage floor in that workplace and industry. For the sake of the people who do need the money I'd not volunteer.
posted by deadwax at 11:24 PM on November 21, 2017 [85 favorites]

No, it is not appropriate. If you want the job, apply for it. If you don't need the money, donate it back to the organisation (on the quiet). If you apply and don't get the job, ask what volunteer opportunities exist for you to do, don't offer to do it for free. Don't undermine the people who do need the money by working voluntarily in a job that the organisation has deemed worth paying for.
posted by Thella at 11:27 PM on November 21, 2017 [32 favorites]

I agree with the answers above and would suggest finding where there is a real need for volunteers in the field, and filling that need instead. It would do more good.

To draw a parallel, I was a tutor during a time in my life when I had very low expenses and could afford to work at below-market rates. The difference between what I was charging and what I was "worth" was essentially a donation to society. But the benefit of this donation was much greater when directed to students who could not otherwise afford a tutor than when directed to those who could. In the former case, my work increased the amount of tutoring available. In the latter case, my work merely displaced its own volume, and possibly deprived another tutor of a livelihood more sorely needed than my own.
posted by aws17576 at 12:18 AM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Take the paid job and donate your income to them. You screw up their budget on grants and payroll by turning it into a volunteer position and change the dynamic and future planning. Also your own circumstances may change. Just quietly arrange a monthly donation of the equivalent.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 1:09 AM on November 22, 2017 [12 favorites]

What everyone else said, and also this: If you were to apply and they turned you down, offering to do the job for free basically says that you think it's fair to do "bad work" for free. After all, if you were "good enough", they would have offered the paid position... (Overly simplified, hence the quotes) If the job exists as a paid job, they have money to hire the best candidate. If that isn't you, just ask if there are volunteer positions available (as in: not this job, but something else).
posted by easternblot at 2:14 AM on November 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

There is a strong, unconscious, and nearly uncontrollable tendency to regard "free" work as coming from an infinite source of time and effort. If they are paying you, they will be a lot more organized at meetings, take your requests for help and information more seriously, and give you what you need to do a better job (equipment, help, time, space, focused consideration, other support). They will quite possibly get a much better result just as a result of thinking of you as a paid resource rather than a free resource, completely independent of your skill or desire to help.
posted by amtho at 4:48 AM on November 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

Please don't. You'll be undercutting people who do need that job to live or advance their careers. Their labor has value.
posted by kalimac at 5:04 AM on November 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have a passion for coaching a sport, which over my ten plus years has alternated between a volunteer and paid role depending on the organization. I currently happen to be paid with the club I'm with. The last club I was not.

Nthing the advice to take a wage if it is offered to you. It's awkward to be a volunteer and in what is normally a paid position (have done that before). If you don't have use for the income, you could always use it to donate to other charitable causes or this particular organization.
posted by snowysoul at 5:18 AM on November 22, 2017

Depending on a number of factors it may not even be legal. At a minimum it would be taking advantage of you, which is antithetical to most non-profit’s mission. I have a non-profit background, and volunteers are heroes. I encourage you to seek out those opportunities.

I have a full-time+ job

Based on all my experience, that part-time job will almost certainly include more hours than the job listing states. Maybe not every day or every week, but there may be times when it’s all hands on deck, and if you have a conflict with another job with extra hours that could be a problem.

(Plus what everyone else said above.)
posted by Room 641-A at 6:30 AM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Echoing Room 641-A above, in Quebec it is illegal to have someone volunteer or intern for a task or position that an employer would usually pay for. I don't know the specifics but check your place's laws about if it's even possible for the employer to take you on as a volunteer for this position.
posted by eisforcool at 6:43 AM on November 22, 2017

The only way to do this is, as others have noted, to get hired for the paying position and donate the wage back. If you're not hired and still want to support the mission, make a donation and volunteer your time in a role that is volunteer. NPOs need to keep their budgets accounting for actual costs, for one thing.

The part people keep pointing out that "NPOs need to adequately value necessary labor" is also really important but really complicated--particularly with administrative functions. First, grants often don't cover operating expenses. And donors fucking hate paying salaries and benefits and they get really pissed off if you use "their money" to buy new computers or pay a designer to update your website or buy a software package that improves your output. But donors and your constituents complain bitterly when your website is out of date and board members hassle you constantly about your branding not being slick and your employees have to work around outdated tools or short staff. Doing without pay an administrative task deemed sufficiently critical to make it into the budget validates this perception that operating expenses at an NPO are illegitimate uses of our funding. It's a constant struggle at NPOs--balancing necessary and reasonable operating costs against donors and funders who have their own ideas about what our labor is worth or what tools we need to do our jobs AND against our desire to use donor dollars efficiently and meaningfully. Don't make that problem worse by contradicting our decision that this labor is necessary and important enough to make it into the budget.

Also, even with the best intentions and strongest work ethics, volunteers do not function as employees. They just don't. For one thing, they never quite internalize the "have to do this thing I have to do" the way paid personnel do. Even people who love their jobs would not go to work sometimes except they have to.

For the other thing, paid staff don't facilitate that internalization of the commitment if someone is a volunteer, unless it's specifically their job to manage that volunteer. And having it be specifically your job to manage that volunteer means you're not doing program work AND means that the budget is paying for the work the volunteer is doing byt percentage of paid staff's time necessary to oversee that work. It's a constant tension in NPOs who use volunteers for substantive work, unlike, say NPOs that use volunteers for phone banking or selling raffle tickets.

However, if you are a professional with a skill that the NPO needs for a discrete project with a beginning and end, absolutely offer an in-kind pro bono arrangement. Do they need someone to plan the spring event and you're an event planner? Is their donor database in need of an overhaul and you know the system intimately? Would their reports benefit from consistent branding and you're a graphic designer who can make templates and train them in their use? Write a detailed proposal with your timeline, work product/outcomes, and how much necessary input you'll need from the staff and offer it to the organization. They may still say No--they've had people offer this many times before without delivering.
posted by crush at 6:45 AM on November 22, 2017 [14 favorites]

Also, the org may not be willing to offer the job as a volunteer role because volunteers are on average less reliable than people who are being paid to be there and who need the money. This role will probably eventually conflict with your full time role, and you will have to choose your job. There may also be insurance / liability concerns that mean you need to be an employee. Just ask about volunteer opportunities.

On preview, what crush said.
posted by momus_window at 6:46 AM on November 22, 2017

Thanks for the input everybody, the decision seems clear. Crush, thanks for explaining the process to donate work as a consultant on a specific project and how that differs from volunteering.
posted by agentofselection at 8:08 AM on November 22, 2017

I have done this (offering to do work for free). Some places have said yes and others said no. If you really want to do the work, and you really just want "experience" and don't care about getting paid for it, this can be a good thing that makes it possible for them to expand services elsewhere, develop a new project, etc. Or they might not want to mess with a budget that is all set up/ deal with a volunteer. It's worth asking.
posted by redorangeyellow at 9:22 AM on November 22, 2017

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