Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Volunteer or Salary?

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on April 23, 2014

Balance SheetWe can’t end a global epidemic using only volunteers.

Volunteers are the heart and soul of any cause, but too often we’ve embraced the idea that volunteer work is good, noble, meaningful and righteous, and paid work is what you do to pay the bills, but is somehow ‘less’ because you are being paid, or worse, in our field the belief that being paid means making money off of other people’s tragedies. As a lifelong volunteer myself, I believe that giving back is one of the greatest gifts you can give, or receive. Volunteering taps into personal traits of compassion, empathy, altruism and generosity that not only feel good, but make us more decent human beings. Anyone who has volunteered for a cause or organization and seen how you, personally, have made a difference can attest to the good feelings that are different from the feelings you get when you see your pay stub.

The problem is, too much of the work in the drowning prevention field is done by volunteers, or, as one person put it, ‘thank goodness for my real job so I can volunteer my time to drowning prevention!‘ I’ve written before about our need to shift the mindset of our organizations from ‘all volunteer’ to ‘paid talented professional staff’, but today I’m going to make a different argument for why we need to change our thinking.

I haven’t seen a shift in attitudes in our field in the year since that blog was posted, some agreement, but not much action. I have seen some external forces which tell me, again, we need to start thinking about how to attract and retain talented paid staff. Funding. Money. As in, financial solvency. Applying Business Disciplines. We saw our first major grant awarded this year. $10 million from the Bloomberg Foundation to the Bangladesh creche program, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University. Outstanding news for the field, and well deserved for an excellent program. Everyone started talking about what they could do with $10 million (or even $10,000, we still tend to think small), but I haven’t seen much understanding that organizations can’t attract that kind of funding with a mostly volunteer staff that answers email when they can, or does projects on vacation from their real job. I’m not saying that all those organizations aren’t doing truly great things, they are, and even more impressively, despite serious restrictions that come from having a largely volunteer staff, but it’s not enough. Can you imagine having to report back to the Bloomberg Foundation that you didn’t meet your deadlines or goals because, well, I had exams, or there was a project at work, or I don’t have time to respond to email, or our volunteers just didn’t show up that week? It should be no surprise that the recipients of the $10 million represented a big organization with extensive paid staff, supported by a couple of other big organizations with paid staffs.

We are deluding ourselves if we think the big money, the money that we need to put in programs that are measurable, sustainable and actually do good, not just feel good, is going to be awarded to all-volunteer organizations, or organizations with no plans to expand and attract the best people – and pay them.

Like attracts like. The big foundations didn’t just find money growing on trees or have a bunch of kind-hearted donors hand over checks without scrutinizing their organizational structure and financial rigor. Those same foundations aren’t going to hand over money to any organization that doesn’t have a solid strategic plan that includes hiring and developing talented professionals who know how to manage a project and deliver results on time and on budget.

I know many passionate volunteers in our field who would love to have their passion be their profession. We need to start operating our organizations like bottom-line businesses. This probably means that for many organizations the first hire needs to be a business person who can learn about drowning, instead of focusing on water safety professionals who need to learn about balance sheets and returns on investment.

Passion saves lives, but organized action saves more lives.

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