Lean funders are always looking for leverage: Where and how can we invest our limited assets to get the best returns? Will our grantees survive these challenging times and growing needs? How will we all (funders and nonprofits) rebuild our communities in a post-pandemic world? Will we look for innovative ways to strengthen organizational capacity?
Supporting effective volunteer engagement, and the infrastructure that sustains it, is an often-overlooked solution. A nonprofit’s ability to mobilize and use volunteer resources effectively is critical to their thriving and better fulfilling their missions. We know this from both experience and research. However, few funders focus on the importance of this capacity, and its direct impact on their grantee partners’ performance.
The state of strategic volunteer engagement
Recently, several Exponent Philanthropy members organized a funding partnership around volunteer engagement. This spring, the partnership is launching a national research project to determine the state of strategic volunteer engagement in the social sector.
The Leighty Foundation, Lodestar Foundation, VolunteerMatch, The National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement, and the UJA Federation of New York are sponsoring two national surveys: one of funders and one of nonprofits. Independent Sector is providing technical assistance. And the partnership engaged the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland to conduct the surveys.
This study is breaking new ground by surveying funders, as well as nonprofits. It will supply unique data to compare and contrast both sectors. And it has the potential to reach a larger audience than other recent projects.
This research will create a baseline for gaps and disconnects in the field. And funding partners will use the findings to drive a national conversation about philanthropic support and nonprofit adoption of strategic volunteer engagement.
Volunteer engagement as a core strategy
Past research demonstrates a strong connection between organizations that operate with volunteer engagement as a core strategy to accomplish their mission, and the overall health and effectiveness of the organization. Take for example:
- Organizations that leverage volunteers and their skills to accomplish their missions are more adaptable, sustainable, and capable of scaling.
- Organizations that engage volunteers are as equally effective in accomplishing their mission as their peers without volunteers. But they do so at almost half the median budget.
- Volunteers give up to ten times more money than non-volunteers. And most donate to the organizations where they are involved.
- Effective volunteer engagement can reap up to a $6 return for every dollar invested.
However, a large percentage of nonprofits that desperately need volunteer help lack the infrastructure to effectively deploy more volunteers. This was never more apparent than over the last two years of the pandemic. Too many organizations put their volunteer engagement on hold and suffered significantly reduced support as a result.
That being said, we know you cannot simply increase the number of people who want to volunteer. To connect those who want to donate their time with high-impact opportunities that empower them to make a real difference, you need to build an innovative organizational infrastructure.
Volunteers are a vastly underutilized, yet virtually unlimited renewable resource. The need is urgent, the timing is critical, and the support is necessary.
Furthering this national research project
Participating in this national research project (regardless of whether you do or don’t fund volunteerism, capacity building and organizational development) will help paint a more accurate picture of volunteer engagement in America. It will also support our collective efforts to strengthen the sector’s health, and the communities we serve.
When it launches, in the coming weeks, the research team will send you the survey to complete online. Your information will be kept confidential, only visible to the research team, and deleted after the project is finished.
Thank you for your willingness to share your time and experiences with the philanthropic and social sectors.
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About the Author
Jane Leighty Justis is president of the Leighty Foundation.