By Jeffrey M. Glebocki and Betsy McFarland
This article was originally posted on Exponent Philanthropy’s Blog.
When lean funders combine their grantmaking, influence, and passion, they have more impact than either could individually. The Leighty Foundation (Juneau, AK) and the Lodestar Foundation (Phoenix, AZ) both believe that strategic volunteer engagement can advance the missions of funders and their grant partners.
Volunteers are often the first to respond to pressing community needs. From the pandemic to climate change to social inequities, volunteers come together when disasters strike, and can step in with much-needed capital. Yet, they remain one of the most undervalued resources in the philanthropic ecosystem.
Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement
In 2021, The Leighty Foundation and the Lodestar Foundation sought out and found likeminded funders and national nonprofits to create the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement with VolunteerMatch, UJA-Federation of New York, the National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement, and the Fidelity Charitable Trustees’ Initiative.
The partners pooled their resources to commission comprehensive nationwide research that explored:
- The beliefs and behaviors of funders and nonprofit executives around strategic volunteer engagement.
- What motivates funders to provide grant support (or not) for community engagement in the form of volunteers.
- What factors inspire nonprofits to embrace strategic volunteer engagement (or not), both in service to advancing their respective missions.
The partners also funded having a communications firm design and launch a year-long national conversation about volunteer engagement in the social sector. The result has been coverage in hundreds of media outlets around the country; almost 1,000 participants in a series of national webinars; a string of foundation and nonprofit conference presentations; and a website serving as the nexus of research, content, and how-to resources.
“This initiative furthers both of Lodestar’s primary philanthropic strategies: advancing philanthropic impact by seeking to maximize the effectiveness of volunteers; and working collaboratively with others to jointly support this important goal.”– Lois Savage, president of the Lodestar Foundation
Here are several key learnings that have emerged thus far through the Initiative’s venture:
Bring Funders and Nonprofits to the Same Table
All too often, foundations and their grant partners operate in silos. But the Initiative benefited by convening smart, committed people from all sides of the social sector.
“This endeavor has been an opportunity for funders and nonprofits to truly work together as partners. We’re working hand-in-hand with the same vision and outcomes in mind.”– Jennifer Bennett, director of education & training for VolunteerMatch
Be Patient but Remain Focused on the Goal
There are few short-cuts to building an effective partnership. Developing shared agreements, values, and goals is worth the time investment upfront. The joint work with and between partners also becomes richer and more dynamic when voices push-and-pull on the status quo with new and different ideas around how to get the job done.
You Don’t Have to Be a Mega-Donor to Have Impact
To be sure, it’s not inexpensive to launch and sustain an initiative of this nature. But by being creative, nimble, agile, and a bit scrappy, lean funders and their nonprofit partners can leverage their resources and influence to make a significant impact in the sector.
“Supporting this Initiative has been the largest philanthropic investment our small-asset family foundation has ever made. And it has produced some of the most lasting impact in our history by capitalizing on all the partners’ efforts.”– Jane Leighty Justis, president of The Leighty Foundation
Every No Is a Gift to Learn From
Bringing people and organizations together to understand and support strategic volunteer engagement involves communicating, marketing, and selling this impactful approach. Some folks get it right away. Others are less receptive. However, this give us a chance to hone the message to be clearer and more persuasive.