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Should Volunteers Be Paid?

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A big lawsuit against Major League Baseball brings up a classic question: what kind of work is right for volunteers, and what work should be paid?

Several sources have covered this story in relation to both MLB and the NFL. Here’s one from the New York Daily News

As a result of the lawsuit against MLB, which has not been settled, the NFL has elected to hire its own 1,500 workers to help out at events and pay them. The Super Bowl Host Committee is hiring 11,000-12,000 volunteers for community projects, but those people will not be paid and will have to sign a waiver “that among other things says they won’t join a class-action suit asking to be paid.”

Employment and Volunteering

© Flickr user terrybone

Here in Indianapolis, Indianapolis Business Journal reporter Anthony Schoettle describes it this way:

Indianapolis utilized 8,500 volunteers to host the 2012 Super Bowl. Not one of them got a penny for their time and effort.

So what exactly is a “volunteer” anyway? It’s time to head back to the granddaddy of all modern employment law, the Fair Labor Standards Act. Here’s what the Department of Labor has to say about “volunteering:”

  • It should usually be done a part-time basis
  • It should be provided for public service, religious, or humanitarian objectives
  • It must not be conducted by individuals who are employees of the organization
  • It should be performed without contemplation of pay
  • It must be done for non-profits that are religious, charitable, or “similar”

And now back to sports…

NFL Game

© Flickr user matt hutchinson

Do groups like the National Football League and Major League Baseball need volunteers? The FLSA indicates that the answer is “maybe, but only if they they are religious, charitable or similar.” Many are surprised to hear that the NFL is a non-profit. MLB used to be one, but gave it up in 2007 to avoid revealing executive salaries.

Perhaps the best way to answer this question as an individual is this: Do you believe the organization is making the world a better place, and lacks the funds to pay one more person to help? If the answer is yes, sign up. Otherwise, think twice about giving away your time for free. Especially if you’re considering an internship.

And if you’re an organization thinking about asking for volunteers, it might be best to figure out out why you don’t have the revenue to cover the staff that meets your needs. If the answer is that you want to do more good than your income supports, asking for volunteer help might make sense.

Either way, good luck.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 4 weeks ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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