Can volunteers run a sustainable business?

7 years ago, before the financial crash, I developed a theory (shared only with a couple of people who politely suggested I do something useful with my time) that you might be able to assess the sustainability of an organisation by the ratio of paid to unpaid work being done there on a regular basis.

I was suggesting that the higher the ratio of paid to unpaid work (embracing unpaid overtime by staff as well as volunteer input), the higher the potential sustainability of that organisation.  In other words, paid workers were essential to the success of organisations providing goods and/or services not least because, unlike volunteers, they had a legal obligation to turn up to work whether they wanted to or not.

A blog I wrote a couple of years ago shows my more recent thinking on this theme at http://www.seee.co.uk/blog/volunteers,-social-enterprise-and-sustainability

Fast forward from 2006 to the present and the radically changed economic and political climate in which we’re working has forced me to rethink my theory and turn it on its head!

??????????????????????????My new theory is that the degree to which unpaid workers run an organisation may be a barometer of its potential for sustainability ie more unpaid = more sustainable. Holding down staffing costs (usually the biggest cost in any enterprise) should make it less vulnerable to squeezes on funding and finance.

Keeping the organisation going by balancing the books is, of course, no direct measure of its effectiveness and social impact.

In 14 years of advice-giving to, and learning from, social enterprises of all shapes, ages and stages I’ve argued that you can’t sustain a business entirely run by volunteers; that goodwill towards a cause, however worthy, is not enough.

In the coming 12 months I’m planning to test out my new theory by running an environmental social enterprise – The Repair Shed (see information elsewhere on this blog site) – with members who will be unpaid. That said, I’m planning that they’ll be rewarded with time credits – a community currency (ref my past in community timebanking) – but not with cash.

Will it work? Do share your views and watch this space!

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