How One Nonprofit Makes a Case for Investing in Volunteer Engagement Internally and Externally

By Sue Carter Kahl, PhD

Nonprofits juggle many priorities: delivering programs, raising funds, cultivating awareness and relationships, responding to changing community needs and building trust with multiple audiences, to name just a few. These tasks tend to fall in separate departments, yet one strategy—when done well—can contribute to each of these areas: volunteer engagement. Southwest Human Development in Phoenix, Arizona, has discovered this lesson firsthand. 

Southwest Human Development provides services that support families with children in the first five years of life. Volunteers were part of their programs for many years, but in a somewhat haphazard way. The executive team saw an opportunity to be more strategic in this area and tapped into the Service Enterprise and Activ8 development programs to deepen and expand their volunteer engagement.

Getting Started

The team realized they needed to dedicate resources to volunteer engagement if they wanted to make it more strategic. The agency had received funding that could be used for volunteer programming and decided to create a new full-time volunteer engagement role for a six-month pilot. They invited Annette Sutfin, a program team member who was taking a volunteer management course, into the position. Annette shifted from her position in foster care programming to join the resource development team.

An Early Win

One of the first demonstrations of the merits of a more strategic approach to volunteer engagement was during their annual fundraising walk. In the past, the agency pulled in many staff to work the event along with one group of corporate volunteers. It was a lot of additional work for staff across the agency and required them to work the weekend.  

Annette saw an opportunity to tap into corporate partners to ease the burden on paid staff. She invited sponsors and other corporate groups to volunteer. She retooled the volunteer roles to ensure a more meaningful service experience. It worked. The event ran more smoothly than it ever had, the sponsors and corporate volunteers enjoyed the fundraiser, and fewer staff shouldered event management. Even better, the sponsors had such a good time that they signed on for the following year. 

The positive outcomes were clearly visible to senior leadership. In just a few months, there was no question that it was worth extending Annette’s position to a long-term role. 

Continuing to Make the Case

The initial funding helped underwrite the early years of the volunteer engagement position. As it dwindled though, Annette saw the need to continue demonstrating the value that volunteers contributed to the agency. One way she did that was to highlight the financial gains that resulted from volunteer engagement. In partnership with her development colleagues, she tracked and reported income such as:

  • Increased, new, and continuing sponsorship, matching gift, and grant contributions from volunteer groups;

  • In-kind donations from school supply, diaper, book, and holiday gift drives; and

  • The financial value of volunteer time calculated by multiplying volunteer hours by the Independent Sector’s wage replacement rate

When combined, these contributions annually added up to more than $500,000 and sometimes as much as $750,000. It more than justified the salary for Annette’s position. 

The value went beyond the bottom line though. The volunteers had a positive influence on the agency’s operations as well as the families they were serving. Their impact was felt in many important ways.  

Making Volunteer Engagement Visible – and Fundable

One of the challenges of volunteer engagement is that it can be hidden in plain sight, but the Southwest Human Development team makes it visible in a variety of ways.

  • They include volunteer engagement in grant applications. They discuss the ways that volunteers contribute to program and community success in the narrative and include volunteer expenses as part of administrative costs.

  • They extend volunteer opportunities to funders and sponsors so these partners can see the mission in action. These opportunities range from spending a half day sorting and packing books for families to hosting a book, diaper, or other drive.

  • They get creative about integrating volunteer engagement, program, and fundraising. For example, they created a new volunteer opportunity for a literacy program. Youth graduates of the program receive a stuffed animal Reading Buddy, decorated carrying case, a new book, and a note from a volunteer encouraging them to continue their reading journey. Corporations pay for the kits and the volunteer experience for their employees.  

Recommendations

Annette recently transitioned to a new organization, but the commitment she cultivated for volunteer engagement within the agency and the volunteer engagement position remain. She offered the following suggestions for others wanting to make a case for investing in volunteer engagement. 

  • Get to know the fundraising department. Annette’s position was part of the development team, but even those outside of it can have regular conversations about where goals overlap and how to include volunteer engagement in funding proposals.

  • Identify volunteer opportunities for sponsors and donors to see the mission in action, which can lead to renewed and sometimes larger donations. Annette emphasized the importance of making sure volunteer opportunities align with mission and community needs and include education about the cause.

  • Highlight the connections that are made because of volunteer engagement. Annette provided stories to her supervisor to share with the board and executive team about who they were meeting and how that opened the door to new relationships.  

  • Keep an open mind about where volunteers can be engaged. Once the team started to think more expansively about what volunteers could do, they were able to create new opportunities for involvement. The variety of roles helps demonstrate volunteer impact on many levels.

  • Focus on relationships. Working side by side on meaningful, if sometimes challenging, projects built connections that last. Annette witnessed how volunteers felt connected to the agency, the mission, the staff, and each other. “The relationship building part of this work cannot be overstated.” 

What started out as a six-month experiment at Southwest Human Development has turned into a long-term commitment. Investing in volunteer engagement, and doing so strategically, has yielded dividends for the families they serve, the agency’s financial health, and the volunteers who participate. Like all nonprofits, the agency still must juggle many priorities—but now they have more partners to help keep all the balls in the air. 

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