First Alternative Upgrades Member Labor Accounting

In Corvallis, Oregon, First Alternative now has a data base for its member volunteer base. The system, implemented in 1993, has greatly improved planning and productivity and saved us money.

A new volunteer accounting and verification system was first mandated by the co-op's board of directors in 1990. As a volunteer advisory committee began developing a workable verification system, three things became clear:

1) First Alternative needed more than mere verification of volunteer service. We had no reliable system for gathering data on the volunteer system. In other words, we lacked accounting, the most basic tool for planning.

2) Any innovation should work for both the individual and the organization. In other words, it should improve the volunteer system and be easy for individual volunteers to participate in.

3) To be effective, any volunteer accounting system requires the full support of paid staff. Any system lacking that support will fail.

With these considerations in mind, we looked at a wide variety of alternatives for an accounting/verification system. Among the options we deemed unworkable were cardbased systems and the use of in-store hard copy files. Both present many potential complications at the cash register when the volunteer claims the discount.

After considerable discussion, we chose what we felt would be the most efficient and effective system: a computer data base, updated daily from the volunteer sign-in sheet.

After six months, volunteer discounts had dropped by $12,000 while volunteer hours worked increased.

Such a system demands only one thing of the volunteer: that he/she sign in for each shift (or special project) worked. Claiming the discount is a simple matter of giving one s name to the cashier, who checks to see that the name appears on that day's list of eligible volunteers. The time spent in this transaction at the register is minimal, we have found, and does not create "traffic problems" at the register.

Before settling on the data-base accounting model, we also conducted detailed surveys of co-ops nationwide, and of our own volunteers, in the hope of determining if there were better systems available or if there were some unanticipated problems with our initial model. While answers varied widely, the results did not reveal any unanticipated problems or suggest any better alternatives. In fact, a number of other co-ops with volunteer systems were also considering data-base systems.

Our next step was to develop the specific data-base for our proposed accounting system. The current model is programmed on "4th Dimension" data-base software. There is no reason, however, that it could not be updated or transferred to new or different data-base software, should the need arise.

The new volunteer accounting system strengthened First Alternative in three important ways:

(1) Planning: The accounting system provides the first ongoing, reliable source of data on several elements of the volunteer system, e.g., the number of volunteers in a given period, the percentage of available volunteer positions staffed, cyclical fluctuations, and so on. This allows for more informed planning within the system and yields important information about overall staffing needs. In addition, it offers solid data which allows for determining the true savings and/or costs of the volunteer system.

(2) Savings: The accounting system saves money for the store. By improved planning for in-store staffing, we can reduce needless overstaffing, correct under-staffing, and improve the overall productivity of all staff, paid and volunteer. Also, by ensuring that the volunteer discount only goes to volunteers, we are not losing money to non-volunteers who claim the discount.

After six months of using the system, the volunteer discount had dropped by $12,000 while volunteer hours worked actually increased.

(3) Morale: A volunteer system improved by better planning and greater productivity also shows improved morale and greater retention ofvolunteers. Members like the new system, which also allows a more fair way for them to credit forward their discount time. To the extent that volunteers see their labor as an essential part of store staffing, we are likely to see a greater volunteer commitment to the success of First Alternative.

Numerous reports are easily generated. Monthly summaries by position, or daily, weekly and other formats are readily available.

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