Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about how at Compassionate Action for Animals we often substitute volunteer labor for money. I think this is fundamental for any activist organization, and learning how to exploit this dynamic is a key to success.

I’m thinking specifically of the conference we just put on. We got a lot of food donations. We served breakfast and lunch for two days to around 180 people. Amazingly, we were able to do this for a mere $9.17 per person per day! Contrast that to catering, which is at least twice that much. Also factor in that because we didn’t have catering, we provided our own (biodegradable) plates, cups, and flatware, which I included in the $9.17 figure.

We were able to cut our costs in half, but it didn’t come for free. We had several volunteers who spent time contacting restaurants and markets to get donations. Of course, because we didn’t have a catering service we had to purchase our own serving supplies, do all the food prep, and do all the cleanup. We had quite a few volunteers involved in that on both days. All of this effort was mostly volunteer-led as well. Caryn Brooks was in charge both of securing donations and day-of food handling, and she did a great job.

Overall, we saved around $3,600 ($10 per person per day). If all this work took around 60 hours of volunteer labor, then each hour of labor was worth $60!

This is just one example of how this tradeoff works. CAA is not a very rich organization (our annual income is well under $50,000), but we manage to do a lot by focusing on trading labor for money. We’ve always made a point when discussing long-term strategies to emphasize the importance of recruiting and empowering volunteers.

It is important to make sure that volunteers do more than just “grunt work”. If we required staff to supervise all of our volunteers, our expenses would be much higher. By letting volunteers take the lead as organizers, we can get more done with much less money.

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