Volunteer Give And Take

Dear Kim:

Our group is doing a tour of “Green Homes”—that is, homes built with “green” materials and eco-sensitive construction practices. We will be carpooling people in eco-friendly cars from home to home during the day of the tour. In our excitement at planning the day, we asked everyone we knew who had a Prius or other bio-friendly car if they would be a driver for the tour. We expect 100 participants, so we engaged 20 drivers. Later we decided to charge $40 a ticket for the tour. Can we now ask our drivers to buy tickets to the event? If not, we’re going to lose one-fifth of the proceeds we hoped to make from ticket sales (20 out of 100 participants). But we’d rather not lose the goodwill of people we’ve asked to volunteer for us.

~How to be green and also get the green?

Dear Green:

Yours is a common dilemma in putting on any event: do you ask the volunteers who help you with the event to also buy a ticket? Your instinct about preserving good will being important is correct. In fact, that is a high priority. The problem with giving the drivers a free ticket is that those who are only driving and did not help do the other work of the event are being given a nice reward for maybe two hours work. Those who advertised the tour, set up the homes, etc. and who want to go on the tour don’t seem to be getting a free ticket, so I think good will may be lost there. In this particular instance, you got yourself into this bind by not being clear on the front end. So the question is, “What do the drivers think they are paying?” You could decide to clarify by calling or e-mailing them and saying, “By the way, because you are being such a nice person and driving people around on this tour, we are happy to give you a ticket for half price.” This rewards them a little bit, makes back some of the money you want, and probably will not offend your other volunteers who will pay full price. Even if a driver thought he or she was getting a free ticket, they will probably not be so petty as to make a fuss, and if someone does fume, you can apologize for the misunderstanding.

As to the larger issue of volunteers involved in putting on an event also paying for their tickets, I think they should. Otherwise your event simply offers “scholarships” for time put in, and there is no fair way to do that because a person who volunteers a little gets the same reward as someone who has put in hours of time. Further, people who volunteer in other ways in your organization don’t have access to this kind of reward. But if you give all your volunteers a free ticket you give up making a lot of money at your event. Finally, your sponsors and big donors did not contribute in order to reward volunteers but because they thought you would use the money you generated for your program. Make everyone pay, and then reward all your volunteers with a separate volunteer appreciation event.

Whatever you decide, the most important thing is to be clear about the rules from the beginning.

~Kim Klein