Funders Don’t Often Back Volunteer Engagement. Can Nonprofits Convince Them It’s Worthwhile?


One of the underreported impacts the pandemic had on nonprofits was the extent to which it inhibited their ability to engage and retain volunteers. In the early days of the crisis, organizations canceled as many as 93% of all volunteer opportunities, according to VolunteerMatch, the Oakland-based nonprofit that connects volunteers and nonprofit organizations.

Conditions have thankfully improved since the spring of 2020, but a considerable number of volunteers still haven’t returned to the fold, especially older individuals, who tend to make up the volunteer base for many organizations. Meanwhile, demand for services is rising, budgets remain flat, a possible recession is looming and workers are burned out, further underscoring the importance of engaging volunteers to advance the organization’s mission.

Enter the newly launched Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement. A joint partnership between nonprofits and funders like the Leighty Foundation, the Lodestar Foundation and the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of New York, the initiative promotes a “framework that intentionally supports nonprofit organizations in maximizing volunteer experiences.” The initiative argues that by embracing this framework, nonprofits can not only replenish their volunteer ranks, but also show funders that their efforts to do so are worthy of philanthropic support.

To coincide with its launch, the initiative published “Investing in Strategic Volunteer Engagement: A Qualitative Study” in February. Culled from feedback from 27 philanthropic organizations, the report identifies ways nonprofits can make the case to funders that normally shy away from bankrolling volunteer-related activities.

“One of the issues that emerged from the research is that volunteer contributions to nonprofits are often significant but overlooked or unseen — hidden in plain sight,” said the report’s author, Dr. Sue Carter Kahl, via email. To make these contributions visible to grantmakers, the report encourages nonprofits to move beyond rudimentary metrics like hours logged to show how volunteers improve program delivery, bolster fundraising and advance funders’ strategic priorities. “These data and stories,” Kahl said, “tell a fuller and more accurate story about volunteer contributions.”

An underfunded area

Readers likely know that it takes an inordinate amount of time, energy, expertise and money to make the volunteer machinery run smoothly. It is surprisingly uncommon, however, for funders to recognize this work as worthy of their support.

“Volunteers are unpaid,” Kahl said. “But that does not mean they are free.” That said, several funders told Kahl that they “did not promote or invite funding requests for it, nor did they include questions on grant applications about volunteerism.” The initiative’s research posits two reasons as to why this is the case.

First, as depressing as it may sound, some funders simply don’t see the value in volunteer engagement. The initiative released Kahl’s report in tandem with another paper, “The State of Volunteer Engagement: Insights from Nonprofit Leaders and Funders.” Conducted by Dr. Nathan Dietz and Dr. Robert T. Grimm, Jr. from the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, the report found that that while 72% of nonprofit leaders felt that volunteers “improve the quality of services or programs provided to a great extent,” only 25% of funders agreed.

It’s demoralizing stuff, but even if funders were sold on the benefits of volunteerism, it would require them to allocate support for what is, in essence, an operational activity, when most of them “prefer giving to programs,” as Kahl’s report notes. This finding comports with funders’ abiding adherence to strategic philanthropy. Under this prevailing model, program officers thoughtfully identify organizations focused on the funder’s priorities, crunch the data and allocate support in a way that achieves measurable impact at scale. In contrast, supporting an organization’s volunteer infrastructure looks a bit too much like funding overhead.

But this is predicated on the assumption that nonprofit leaders have the wherewithal to roll out a volunteer engagement program in the first place. One nonprofit program director told Kahl that leaders are “so worried about the most immediate needs of just keeping the doors open that trying to get creative about this potential [volunteer] workforce just looks like ‘more work.’”

Given the upfront investment needed to support volunteers and the lack of training of paid staff to work with them, “volunteers may look like more of a burden than a resource to staff who are overwhelmed and burned out,” Kahl said.

What is strategic volunteer engagement?

Purveyors of strategic volunteer engagement view volunteers as “assets that need to be nurtured, recruited and cared for,” Kahl said. This means “developing volunteer roles in response to real organizational and community needs; dedicating budgetary resources to support volunteer involvement, such as hiring a volunteer engagement professional and investing in training; and measuring and communicating the impact of volunteer involvement on the mission of the organization.”

When it comes to the issue of communicating impact, the report notes that “the most common data tracked were volunteer hours and numbers, which several funders noted had limited use without context for what those numbers mean to the agency.” Instead, Kahl encourages funders to ask questions like “How does volunteer time improve the quantity of programs or number of community members served?” or “In what ways do volunteers enhance the quality of programs through their time, attention and care?” Answers to these questions can go a long way toward showing funders how their support generates quantitative and qualitative impact.

The UJA Federation of New York’s grant application includes questions that align with the tenets of strategic volunteer engagement, such as, “In what ways do volunteers help your organization elevate program outcomes for clients, increase or expand the delivery of service and/or add value to the overall organization?” Nonprofit leaders can “help lay a foundation for a request on how to sustain or grow that impact with additional funding” by ruminating on these types of outcomes, Kahl said.

As to what funder support can look like in the practical sense, Kahl noted that the UJA Federation supports a volunteer administrator for some of their grantees. “They found it resulted in a measurable return on their investment in terms of helping grantees expand their programs and services by engaging volunteers effectively,” she said. In addition, funders told Kahl they pay for volunteer management software or fees for online volunteer matching platforms, consultant fees and volunteer background checks, or stipends that support volunteer participation such as mileage reimbursement. All that said, Kahl noted that these funders “seem to be exceptions rather than the rule.”

The recruitment question

Of course, the most forward-looking strategic volunteer engagement plan won’t get very far if the nonprofit doesn’t have volunteers at the ready. So how can nonprofits recruit disengaged or skittish volunteers in a post-pandemic world rife with economic uncertainty?

For Kahl, nonprofits need to streamline and sharpen the ask. Normally, leaders put out a general call for volunteers to a broad audience, which is referred to as the “warm body” approach. But “effective recruitment is about identifying specific volunteer roles the organization needs to fill and then targeting prospective volunteers who bring the skills and qualifications a particular role requires,” she said.

Kahl encourages leaders to imagine the characteristics of the ideal volunteer for the role and then brainstorm where they are most likely to find the right people. “A specific ask should be crafted that would appeal to those people that includes a clear statement of the need, how the volunteer can help and the benefits of volunteering in that role,” she said. By making this extra effort, nonprofits increase the odds of matching “the right volunteers for the right role, increasing the likelihood those volunteers will feel satisfied and impactful, and stay engaged.”

Speaking of “the right volunteers,” another takeaway from the report challenged the conventional wisdom that volunteers are an unquestionable asset to a nonprofit. Some funders told Kahl that “flaky” or “rogue” volunteers can do more harm than good to the organization, or that “narrow views of what volunteers were capable of were barriers to volunteer involvement and investment.” A couple of respondents mentioned that “issues of power and privilege play out in volunteerism and can be harmful to the communities being served.”

The lesson here is that nonprofits shouldn’t embrace volunteerism solely for volunteerism’s sake, as leaders may unwittingly expend finite resources to advance work that’s counterproductive to the organization. Instead, nonprofit stakeholders should “identify these concerns directly and work together to cultivate conditions for healthy and productive volunteerism,” Kahl said.

Looking ahead, in the spring, the initiative will release a framework for funders and nonprofits to leverage the power of volunteering to advance organizational goals and impact. The initiative is also partnering with other philanthropic and nonprofit networks to spread the word nationally via webinars, blogs and articles.