A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Philanthropy and Volunteer Engagement: A Dynamic Force for Social Change

By Jane Leighty Justis, The Leighty Foundation

Jane Justis

For 20 years prior to the creation of our foundation, I worked in the field of volunteer management — both as a practitioner and national trainer. During that time, I saw firsthand the effect that well placed and equipped volunteers had on the accomplishments of many organizations. I also experienced how poorly many agencies utilized this resource, thus missing out on the potential of volunteers to greatly impact their critical missions.

When we created our small family foundation we committed to investing our limited resources in ways that provided the greatest impact and ensured the highest return on our investment. We agreed that supporting organizations in building their capacity to engage volunteers would increase their ability to accomplish their missions, and therefore, their long term sustainability. Too often volunteer engagement has been identified as a program area, thus missing its real value as a cost effective strategy in meeting the growing needs of our communities.

Many have said that our nation is currently facing a perfect storm of economic instability, shrinking resources and escalating needs. This will require a dramatic increase in the number of people willing to give their time and skills as well as their financial resources. But the challenge may be less about increasing the number of people willing to volunteer, and more about building infrastructures which connect them with worthy opportunities and empower them to make a meaningful difference.

Evern Cooper, former CEO of the UPS Foundation, said, “Deploying large numbers of volunteers does not necessarily translate into success for the nonprofit or for the community. Success results when an organization mobilizes and manages its volunteer resources for the greatest possible impact on a problem or need.”

In 2009, the Kennedy Serve America Act was passed. Inspired by the recent passage, and concerned about the potential disconnect between volunteer interest and the infrastructure necessary to effectively engage them, a group of committed leaders launched Reimagining Service. Today, Reimagining Service is a multi-sector coalition dedicated to increasing social impact by encouraging the adoption of practices which leverage the time and talent of volunteers to their fullest potential.

I am pleased to serve on the Council that guides the work of Reimagining Service. As a funder, I have been working with other Council members to educate both funders and nonprofits on the compelling case for investing in volunteer infrastructure. To date, the research has confirmed what many of us have anecdotally suspected all along – a large percentage of nonprofit organizations do not currently have the infrastructure necessary to effectively engage volunteers, and  more than half could not make good use of an additional influx of volunteers.

Now is the time for funders to seize this unique opportunity to offer the financial support necessary to equip leaders, to cultivate and empower these valuable resources. There is no better place to start than with our own grantees! Our foundation has begun a volunteer engagement initiative to increase the capacity of 27 of our local nonprofit organizations in the Pikes Peak region. Part 2 of this series will outline our efforts to date.

Part 3 of the series will share some specific ways we can leverage even small grants to gain a large return on investment in our communities.

In the meantime, I invite you to visit the Reimagining Service website where you will find a case study of this work, as well as enlightening research and resources in the field. The Leighty Foundation’s website also has additional information on our work, as well as resources you might find helpful.

Special thanks to Betty Stallings and Kaira Esgate for contributing to this article.

Exponent Philanthropy member Jane Leighty Justis is a trustee and the executive director of The Leighty Foundation, founded in Waterloo, IA by her father in 1985. Jane is active in the promotion of philanthropy through leadership roles with Exponent Philanthropy, the Council on Foundations, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, the Colorado Association of Funders, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, and others. Jane has a degree in education from the University of Denver, a certification in volunteer management from the University of Colorado, and a master’s degree in Christian leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary.


  1. Jay Haapala

    Thanks Jane. I’m working on the same issue in Minnesota and believe it to be the most important issue in the volunteer management field as well as one of the most important for nonprofits and government agencies in general.

    I’ll be speaking with our local Association of Fundraising Professionals chapter on November 14 and wonder if you can share any resources or tips for how I can tailor my message to resonate well with this particular audience. (I’m already familiar with Reimagining Service.)



  2. […] her previous posts on PhilanthroFiles, ASF member Jane Leighty Justis made the case for investing in volunteer infrastructure and shared her foundation’s efforts to increase the capacity of its local nonprofits to use […]

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