One of the underreported impacts of the pandemic on nonprofits is the extent to which it has hampered 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, an Oakland-based nonprofit that connects volunteers and nonprofits.
Thankfully conditions have improved since the spring of 2020, but a large number of volunteers are still yet to return, particularly the older individuals, who tend to form the volunteer base for many organizations. Meanwhile, demand for services increases, budgets remain flat, a possible recession looms and workers burn out, further underscoring the importance of engaging volunteers to further an organization’s mission.
Enter the recently launched Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement. A joint partnership between nonprofits and funders such as the Leighty Foundation, Lodestar Foundation, and New York’s United Jewish Appeal Federation (UJA), this initiative promotes “a framework that purposefully supports nonprofits in maximizing the volunteer experience.” The initiative argues that by embracing this framework, nonprofits can not only replenish their ranks of volunteers, 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. Drawn from feedback from 27 philanthropic organizations, the report identifies ways nonprofits can make a case for funders who typically shy away from funding volunteer-related activities.
“One of the problems that emerged from this research is that voluntary contributions to nonprofits are often significant but overlooked or invisible – hidden in plain sight,” said the report’s author, Dr. Sue Carter Kahl, via e-mail. To make these contributions visible to grantors, the report encourages nonprofits to move beyond basic metrics like hours logged to show how volunteers improve program delivery, improve fundraising, and advance funders’ strategic priorities. “These data and stories,” says Kahl, “tell a more complete and accurate story about voluntary contributions.”
An underfunded area
Readers may find that it takes an enormous amount of time, energy, expertise, and money to get a volunteer machine running smoothly. However, it is highly unusual for funders to recognize this work as worthy of their support.
“Volunteers are not paid,” says Kahl. “But that doesn’t mean they are free.” That said, some funders told Kahl that they “did not promote or solicit requests for funding for it, nor did they include questions about volunteer grant applications.” The initiative’s research proposes two reasons why this is the case.
First, sad as it may sound, some funders see no value in volunteer involvement. The initiative released the Kahl report alongside 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 School of Public Policy, the report found that while 72% of nonprofit leaders feel that volunteering “improves the quality of services or programs provided for the most part,” only 25% of funders agree.
This is disheartening stuff, but even if funders were sold for voluntary gains, it would require them to allocate support for what is, essentially, operational activity, when most of them “prefer to give to programs,” as the Kahl report notes. . This finding is consistent with the donor’s adherence to strategic philanthropy. Under this prevailing model, program officers carefully identify organizations that focus on funder priorities, process data, and allocate support in a way that achieves measurable impact at scale. In contrast, supporting an organization’s volunteer infrastructure looks like overhead funding.
But this is based on the assumption that nonprofit leaders have the means to roll out voluntary engagement programs in the first place. A nonprofit program director told Kahl that leaders “are so worried about the most pressing need to just open doors that they are trying to get creative about this potential. [volunteer] the workforce seems to be ‘more work.’”
Given the initial investment needed to support volunteers and the lack of paid staff training to work with them, “volunteers may seem like a burden rather than a resource to overstretched and exhausted staff,” says Kahl.
What is strategic volunteer engagement?
Strategic volunteer engagement providers view volunteers as “assets that need to be nurtured, recruited, and cared for,” says Kahl. This means “developing a voluntary role in response to the real needs of organizations and society; dedicating budgetary resources to support voluntary engagement, such as hiring voluntary engagement professionals and investing in training; and measuring and communicating the impact of volunteer involvement on the organization’s mission.”
On the subject of communication impact, the report notes that “the most commonly tracked data are hours and numbers of volunteers, which some funders noted has limited use without context for what those numbers mean to agencies.” Instead, Kahl encourages funders to ask questions such as “How does volunteer time increase the quantity of the program or the number of community members served?” or “In what ways can volunteers improve the quality of the program through their time, care, and concern?” The answers to these questions can show funders how their support is producing a quantitative and qualitative impact.
The UJA Federation of New York grant application includes questions that align with the principles of strategic volunteer engagement, such as, “In what ways can volunteering help your organization improve program outcomes for clients, improve or expand service delivery and/or add value to the organization as a whole?” Nonprofit leaders can “help lay the groundwork for demand for how to sustain or grow that impact with additional funding” by contemplating these types of outcomes, says Kahl.
As for what grantor support looks like in a practical sense, Kahl notes that the UJA Federation supports volunteer administrators for some of their grantees. “They found that it produced a measurable return on investment in terms of helping grantees expand their programs and services by engaging volunteers effectively,” he said. Additionally, funders notify Kahl that they pay for volunteer management software or fees for online volunteer matching platforms, consultant fees and volunteer background checks, or benefits supporting volunteer participation such as mileage reimbursement. All that said, Kahl notes that these funders “seem to be the exception rather than the rule.”
Of course, the most forward-looking strategic volunteer engagement plan will not succeed if the nonprofit does not have volunteers on hand. So how can nonprofits recruit inactive or restless volunteers in a post-pandemic world filled with economic uncertainty?
For Kahl, nonprofits needed to streamline and sharpen demand. Typically, leaders issue a general call to volunteer to a wide audience, which is referred to as a “warm body” approach. But “effective recruiting is about identifying specific volunteer roles that organizations need to fill and then targeting potential volunteers who bring the skills and qualifications required by that particular role,” he says.
Kahl encourages leaders to imagine the characteristics of an ideal volunteer for the role and then brainstorm where they are most likely to find the right person. “Specific questions should be made that will be of interest to people that include a clear statement of the need, how volunteering can help and the benefits of volunteering in the role,” he said. By making this extra effort, nonprofits increase the chances of matching “the right volunteers for the right roles, increasing the likelihood that those volunteers will be satisfied and impactful, and stay engaged.”
Speaking of “the right volunteers,” another conclusion from the report challenges the conventional wisdom that volunteers are an unquestionable asset to nonprofits. Several funders told Kahl that “unstable” or “rogue” volunteers could do more harm than good for the organization, or that “a narrow view of volunteer capabilities is a barrier to volunteer engagement and investment.” Several respondents mentioned that “issues of power and privilege play a role in volunteering and can harm the communities served”.
The lesson here is that nonprofits should not accept volunteerism for the sake of volunteerism, because leaders can unknowingly expend limited resources to advance work that is counterproductive to the organization. Instead, nonprofit stakeholders should “identify these issues head-on and work together to foster a healthy and productive volunteering environment,” said Kahl.
Looking ahead, in the spring, the initiative will release a framework for funders and nonprofits to harness the power of volunteerism to advance organizational goals and impact. The initiative also partners with philanthropic and other non-profit networks to spread the word nationally through webinars, blogs and articles.