The Real Cost of Free

One of the greatest fallacies in our culture is the perception of ‘free’.  That simple word sounds so good to people, yet few realize that it is actually a misnomer.  There really is nothing free.  (Except salvation through Jesus Christ, but even that cost Jesus his life.)

Every time something is offered for free, someone, somewhere, somehow had to pay for it.

Many churches are operating under the assumption that their volunteers are free labor.  The truth is that the free labor comes at a cost.  While it may not cost in dollars directly, the intrinsic costs of volunteer labor can be substantial.  Let’s look at a few examples.

 If you have a volunteer that agrees to fill a need in your church that is awesome.  But what if another need comes up; do you have a volunteer base that can pick up the slack?  What if the first volunteer would be the best person for the new job, yet they are stuck in their current position and have no more time to give?  Now what does that volunteer cost you?  On the opposite side, one instance we’ve all dealt with is what if that volunteer likes the position they are in and think they are doing fine but they are not good at it?  How do you tactfully tell them the truth?

Let’s say you farm out your churches website to a volunteer to design.  Sounds great right?  Well there are some additional costs involved in a website.  In order to have a public website you must have a domain name and hosting account.  Both these items will cost money.  Let’s just say that you choose the cheapest domain registrar and hosting company.  Your volunteer designed the site for free and it is now live.  Low cost, inexpensive way to get a web presence right.

Wrong.  While it is true there are many discount web services out there, they relative cost is actually very high.  This cost often comes in lack of service, lack of availability and flexibility and their template is plagued with ads.  We haven’t even gotten to the user experience when they visit your website.  Since you were cheap and went the inexpensive route you now have a website with low bandwidth meaning your pages load slowly and the user doesn’t get a good experience.  The average user visit to a website is 7 seconds.  If your page isn’t even loaded by then, the user is long gone never to return AND they have formed a perception about your church.

More labor talks.  Let’s say you have some knowledgeable people in your church and you decide to have a Saturday work day to renovate some rooms.  Great, skilled labor is expensive and keeping the work in house saves money right?

We met with a church that built their own building.  Well, they had the shell built professionally but they finished out the inside.  Only problem was that the pastor, who was in charge of design, missed the first work day.  Another person stepped in and decided they could fit extra classrooms if they reduced one foot from all the rest.  More room, Great!  Only problem was that now none of rooms are adequate to fit the average size of their small groups.  What seemed like a great idea at the time and may not have been given much thought is now coming back to bite them and they are regretting that decision.

Volunteer quality.  We all know that there are plenty of people ready and willing to help their church.  After all, we are called to be servants right?  However, what happens when we have a person ready and willing, but unqualified to fulfill the task?  What if they are adequately qualified, but their tastes are different than that of your congregation?  What if they cannot meet the requirements but they are trying their best?  How difficult is it for most people to confront another and tell them they are not doing something right?  What if that person’s husband or wife was a key leader in the church?  Now how much did that decision cost?

I have listed all these things in a way which I realize is very cynical.  In many ways, I was sarcastic and brash.  However, every scenario is real and something we have dealt with in one church or another.  Here is our suggestion.

Take some time to analyze what areas of your church you are willing to use volunteer labor and then allocate the others to professionals.  While on the surface, free sounds good, there are many times where free is actually more expensive than the alternative.

What is the value of the perception, image and presence of your church in the community?  Is it low enough to rely on free to maintain it?

  • http://www.churchwebsites.org Brad Hill

    Great article! In this economy churches are facing a steady pressure on their budgets, so in the short-term you can understand the flight to free. But you make outstanding points here–the long-term impact of “going with the lowest bidder” not only reduces the quality of the ministry output. It sends a message about what is valued.

    Churches shouldn’t be going for the highest-price in any category (unless that solution is the best one for their needs). Price DOES need to be a factor. But churches also need to remember that services cost money, vendors need to eat, and investing in quality is an act of worship!

    We did a post recently along these lines, going into more detail about the church Website “free” myth: The True Cost of Open Source.