Paid to serve? A growing number of civic boards are compensating everyday volunteers

The metro’s regional planning agency is looking for residents to weigh in on the merits of a sweeping transportation plan, but not necessarily with the well-trained eyes of a transportation engineer. Instead, the Metropolitan Council wants up to 16 everyday people concerned about racial and economic equity, or equal access across race and class, to advise their professional consultants.

“You do not have to be an expert in transportation,” reads a recruitment ad posted by the Center for Economic Inclusion. “Just bring your personal and professional experiences using transportation in the region to inform the policy group.”

As an incentive, the Met Council is reimbursing future members of the “Transportation Equity Policy Group” $175 per monthly meeting.

Paid volunteerism on a local government advisory board? It’s a growing trend, and one that some civic advocates say is as essential as ever to capture the perspectives of diverse groups that government too often overlooks during critical planning. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get new faces in the door.


Increasingly, nonprofits, city and county governments and regional planning agencies are treating citizen advisory boards like paid focus groups and compensating volunteers for their time, or at least offering to offset growing costs of participation in light of rising gas prices and burdensome childcare costs.

The individual sums usually aren’t huge — $10 to fill out a survey, $25 to $50 to attend a meeting. But they can add up over time, and participation in more involved projects, such as a county hiring panel, can net greater amounts.

The reasoning is that many everyday citizens — especially low-income residents and people of color — won’t join civic boards because they simply can’t afford to. Some are unlikely to take time off their second job if they can’t somehow recoup those lost dollars.

As a result, advisory boards end up top-heavy with older white homeowners and retirees — people with the time and means to volunteer but who may lack recent, on-the-ground perspective as to what it means to be a young single mother riding a public bus at night or visiting a public park that lacks a diaper changing station.

“We are seeing a trend locally that communities start to be compensated, which I think is great,” said Ramsey County Policy and Planning Director Elizabeth Tolzmann. Tolzmann has worked with volunteers who feel they should be paid more, and others who don’t feel they should be paid at all. “Community feels valued when they’re offered a compensation, though some community members opt out.”

FROM $0 TO $200

Five years ago, Ramsey County rarely offered payment to the members of its 30 or more citizen advisory boards. With an eye toward racial equity, county officials started taking a harder look at the issue around 2018, and set aside funds in the 2020-2021 budget. Then came the need to create more continuity and consistency for department directors, Tolzmann said.

She looked for local precedents across the metro but didn’t find much to work with. After searching nationally for examples at the county level, she presented the county board in October with a suggested compensation matrix intended to guide but not dictate payments to citizen advisers.

Under the matrix, a volunteer serving on a typical advisory group — such as the county’s library board, the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Rush Line or Riverview Corridor committee — would be eligible for up to $25 per meeting.

A citizen adviser on a hiring panel, or a resident evaluating a request for proposals, could earn up to $25 per hour of service. Members of a handful of groups responsible for delivering reports or projects with a more countywide focus, such as the Equity Action Circle and Transforming Systems Together, would be eligible for $50 per hour of service. A keynote speaker or panelist at a county event could earn up to $200.

Participation in a Ramsey County focus group might net $25, and survey participants could pocket up to $10.

Among the stated expectations, members of community engagement teams would not be reimbursed for their participation if they’re already being paid to be there by another organization.

In that vein, Elisa Rasmussen, a senior manager with Xcel Energy’s community relations team, said she has never sought added compensation from Ramsey County for serving on its Workforce Investment Board, even during her year as chair of the board’s equity committee.

“Any committee that I serve on, I’m a volunteer,” she said.


Jan Lucke, a deputy county administrator with Washington County, said members of citizen advisory boards can request a per diem that varies somewhat depending upon the board or commission. It’s usually about $50 per meeting, on top of mileage reimbursement set at the same rate as that of county employees.

In Dakota County, most boards — from the county Planning Commission to the Public Art Citizen Advisory Committee — are offered a per diem of $35 per meeting. The major exception would be the Special Board of Appeal and Equalization, which oversees appeals filed by property owners challenging their valuations for tax purposes. Members can earn up to $175 per day or $87.50 per half day, as well as mileage reimbursement.

In St. Paul, the city’s municipal code indicates that all per diems and expense reimbursements related to service on public committees must be set by the city council, but it doesn’t spell out specific rates. Members who do not receive per diems can get their parking reimbursed at the city’s downtown convention center ramp.

John Wurm, a membership and communications director with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, said his organization does not formally compensate members of its board of directors beyond conference registrations and other expense reimbursements.

“While the vast majority of nonprofit boards do not currently directly compensate board members, I do believe there is a slight upswell in the concept,” said Wurm, in an email. “That may be an interesting question to be asking them moving forward.”

Questions over compensation have sometimes dogged boards that otherwise might fly under the radar, such as the now-defunct board of the Ramsey County Conservation District. The county’s equivalent of an elected soil and water board disbanded in 2018 after intense infighting, including disagreements over unfulfilled requests from a board member who waged a nine-year campaign to be compensated $75 per meeting, to no avail.

In the case of the Met Council’s Transportation Equity Policy group, the work group will advise a team of professional consultants over the course of two years, so the $175 in reimbursement for every two-hour monthly meeting adds up to about $44 per hour after accounting for prep time.

“This is not volunteer work; the work requires a level of expertise that demands being compensated,” reads an unsigned written statement from Met Council staff. “We value the expertise, knowledge and lived experience of the participants on this group and value their time and their contribution to understanding a challenging and complex system — transportation.”