Foundations large and small are always looking for leverage. Where and how can we invest our limited assets in ways that will produce the best returns? Will organizations we funded in the past survive these times of shrinking resources and growing needs? As investors in the nonprofit sector seeking innovative opportunities to maximize our efforts, we must challenge ourselves to better support and build organizational capacity.
A logical and often overlooked solution is supporting effective volunteer engagement and the infrastructure that sustains it.
When creating our family foundation, 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. This strategy has provided a tremendous return on our investment.
For example, in 2011 the Pikes Peak Volunteer Engagement Initiative sought to increase the effectiveness of nonprofit volunteer engagement strategies in the Colorado Springs, CO area. The goal was to enhance organizations’ capacity to fulfill their missions and meet community needs. The Leighty Foundation funded and led a five-year Initiative to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations in the region. We invested in individual organizations through Volunteer Impact Grants, in the community through securing experts to provide training support to dozens of organizations, and in the future through our support of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence as host of the ongoing work.
In its first phase, the Initiative convened and connected board and executive leaders, staff members, and volunteers to identify needs and issues related to volunteer engagement. In addition, we fostered peer exchange and learnings through a community-wide symposium on volunteer engagement, seminars, and reflection gatherings.
Phase II invested even more deeply in local organizations that demonstrated readiness to take their engagement practices to a new level. This phase kicked off with a half-day training on volunteer engagement trends and innovations, attended by 24 organizations. Participants were then invited to apply to be part of Phase II, which included in-depth training and support. Nine diverse organizations were selected and encouraged to identify a strategy for accomplishing their mission through engaging volunteers. Each benefited from an orientation, a pre-project assessment, and a full-day Summit on volunteer engagement, followed by seven months of team coaching as they implemented volunteer engagement innovations and infrastructure improvements.
Post-project evaluations demonstrate that all organizations measurably enhanced their volunteer engagement practices, learned new skills, developed new programs, engaged new volunteer leaders, and increased their capacity to deliver services.
Current research supports our approach. First and most important, it demonstrates a strong connection between organizations that operate with volunteer engagement as a core strategy for mission accomplishment and the overall health and effectiveness of the organization. Take for example:
- Organizations that fundamentally leverage volunteers and their skills to accomplish their missions are significantly more adaptable, sustainable, and capable of going to scale. 
- Organizations that effectively engage volunteers are as equally successful in accomplishing their mission as their peers without volunteers, but at almost half the median budget. 
- High net worth volunteers give up to ten times more money than non-volunteers, and most donate to the organizations in which they are involved. 
- Effective volunteer engagement has been shown in some cases to reap up to a $6 return on every dollar invested when considering the financial value of volunteer involvement. 
We as funders need to seize this unique opportunity to build nonprofit capacity and to sustain and promote more effective volunteer involvement. Here are four actions YOU can take to help make this goal a reality:
- Facilitate or convene dialogue with other grantmakers and nonprofits in the community on volunteer engagement strategies and best practices. Explore how you might enhance the volunteer engagement strategies of your grantees.
- Ask for feedback regarding volunteer successes and challenges in your grant application and evaluation forms.
- Welcome a budget line item to fund a volunteer engagement professional, volunteer resources management technology and software, training and coaching for staff on volunteer engagement, and other vital volunteer resources.
- Support existing professional development, training, and networking opportunities for executive directors, managers of volunteer resources, and other organizational staff and volunteer leaders; provide scholarships to enable those professionals and volunteer leaders to participate.
Volunteers are a vastly underused yet virtually unlimited renewable resource. The need is urgent, the timing is critical, and the support is necessary.
As grantmakers, supporting your community’s and your grantees’ ability to engage and empower volunteers can produce an inspiring return on investment by dramatically expanding their ability to accomplish their mission, thereby strengthening your community.
Jane Leighty Justis is president of The Leighty Foundation, a small family foundation committed to investing its limited resources in ways that create the greatest impact and ensure the most valuable return on investment. Jane also serves as program director working with other funders and nonprofit organizations in the area of capacity building for volunteer engagement. Jane spent 20 years consulting in the field of volunteer engagement, and, in addition to her current role with the foundation, she is also a nationally recognized speaker on family philanthropy.