Making the Ask for Volunteer Engagement Investments
Image of people touching a puzzle

By Dr. Sue Carter Kahl

“You are talking to the choir here.”

So said the participant attending a session at the Arizona Summit on Volunteerism and Civic Engagement. Jeff Glebocki (Co-Director of the Initiative on Strategic Volunteer Engagement/ISVE) and I were there to share recommendations from recent research about investment in strategic volunteer engagement. The nonprofit Volunteer Engagement Professional, who was one of many in the room, suggested that any investment had to start with funders.

We agreed that funders have a vital role. It’s one of the reasons that the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement is providing tools and resources to support funders in making these grants. However, leaders in nonprofit and government agencies have a part to play as well. Everyone in the volunteer ecosystem is needed. 

Indeed, one of the main lessons learned from the interviews I conducted with funders who do and do not invest in volunteer engagement is that volunteers are hidden in plain sight. Over and over, these philanthropic leaders shared that volunteers were “how the work gets done” in many nonprofits. Yet, few nonprofits were highlighting volunteer contributions in grant requests, reports, or site visits with funders. 

Nor, as our workshop participant suggested (and the research supported), were funders requesting this information. Of course, many agency leaders have been trained to align their requests with funder guidelines. Adding volunteers to a grant request when they aren’t mentioned explicitly as a priority feels risky. However, integrating volunteer engagement into funding applications does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. 

Integrating Volunteer Engagement in Program Requests

When volunteers are essential to a program’s success, there is an opportunity to build their effective engagement into program requests. That could include costs for recruitment, training, supervision, recognition, or tracking, among others. These line items all contribute to ensuring a meaningful experience for the volunteer and positive outcomes for the agency and community served. It signals that the agency takes volunteer engagement seriously. 

Incorporating volunteerism into funding requests also means highlighting volunteer impact – which is far more than reporting volunteer numbers and hours. Funders wanted to understand what those statistics represent. They were interested in the benefits of involving volunteers, the results of volunteer work, and how volunteer efforts added to program quality and success. Including this information in program grants makes volunteers and the volunteer engagement function more visible. 

Another workshop participant shared that her agency does just that. They include volunteers in every program grant and frame their involvement as program workers. They also share how volunteer involvement contributes to the sustainability of the program. 

Enhancing Volunteer Engagement through Capacity-Building Grants

Alternatively, some funders in the research (and beyond) viewed volunteer engagement grants as capacity building and suggested that other grantmakers may be open to this type of funding as well. The funder interviewees, for example, underwrote salaries for Volunteer Engagement Professionals or supported training for volunteers, the board, or staff (including those who didn’t have volunteer engagement experience). Others made grants for agencies to participate in Service Enterprise (a process that helps agencies deepen their volunteer strategies) or cover subscriptions for volunteer recruiting sites. Still other funders supported efforts to catalyze community through dialogues or participation in advisory councils with stipends for childcare, transportation, or volunteer time. 

Managing Up

As we talked through options and examples in the workshop, the original commenter raised her hand again, “So what you’re saying is you want us to manage up?”

Yes! Manage up and sideways and out. Sometimes the first conversations about weaving volunteers into grant requests start with your Executive Director or board. In other cases, it may be with the grant writer or fund development team. These internal conversations can pave the way for managing out to funders. Along the way, everyone becomes more literate in the roles, contributions, and investments related to strategic volunteer engagement. 


For support in starting these conversations, check out resources from ISVE. The latest one, Activating the Power of Strategic Volunteer Engagement for a Better World, is a conversation starter – for nonprofit leaders who engage volunteers and for funders who want to expand their work in this area.