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Volunteers "Buying Out" of Their Obligations to Your Program?

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

A program leader in Michigan recently asked:

What are you thoughts on if I can have a group of moms who would prefer to simply volunteer their time as guides rather than get paid and report any income? In this scenario, I could then lower tuition altogether and not give discounts to anyone... Do you have any thoughts/warnings about going that route? Or could I do like some organizations do (homeschool sports for example) where you can either volunteer in some capacity, or buyout for the year? If I did that; how do I determine the value of the volunteer role- as some of the roles would clearly require more time...

Hi Monica!

The U.S. Department of Labor defines volunteers in fact sheet #14A:

"A volunteer generally will not be considered an employee for FLSA purposes if the individual volunteers freely for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, and without contemplation or receipt of compensation. Typically, such volunteers serve on a part-time basis and do not displace regular employed workers or perform work that would otherwise be performed by regular employees."

REQUIRING volunteers to volunteer or to otherwise have to pay (especially a significant amount like $3800/year) looks a lot like coercion and is not "freely" volunteering. Volunteers cannot be coerced to volunteer.

Employee or Volunteer: What's the Difference? – Nonprofit Risk Management Center From this article: "No individual—whether they are on your payroll or not—should be coerced to volunteer their time for your nonprofit."

Additionally, volunteerism is intended to be a positive thing that brings true community and camaraderie to your organization. Forcing members to volunteer "or else" brings a very negative attitude and can change the mentality of the organization and it's members dramatically.

I know that many group leaders are trying to find ways around having to pay employees or perhaps hoping to find ways to have employees work less or volunteer more...but, I will just say, that whatever work around you think you may have found, I can pretty much guarantee that the government (federal and/or state) is already two steps ahead of you and has some kind of policy prohibiting it. Ah! It's also very common that I hear, "But a friend of a friend's group is operating this way, why can't I?" So be cautious of adopting policies or operating a certain way just because someone else is doing it that way. There are a lot of well-meaning people out there running highly non-compliant organizations...whether it's intentional or not does not make it a good reason for you to follow suit. :)

It's a big undertaking to run any type of program, but if you're looking to run something more than an all-volunteer co-op (no drop offs), you're headed into this world of regulations at every corner. Running a more involved program like a hybrid program IS possible (I'm doing it!), but I strongly recommend that you do it in compliance with state and federal laws and not try to find loopholes where they don't exist.

One more article... Is Your Volunteer Really an Employee? The Answer Might Surprise You [Part 2] | Wage & Hour Insights (

Hope that helps!


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