Practical Steps for Investing in Strategic Volunteer Engagement

“This  powerful  approach  to  being  strategic  about  deployment of  volunteer  resources  gets us  so  much  closer  without  getting  hung  up  on  our  differences,” said Marcus Walton, President and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). It’s about “actually  appreciating  our  differences  and  focusing  on  the  things  that  we’re  most  passionate  about  together.” 

Marcus and Jane Leighty Justis, President of The Leighty Foundation, were discussing the ways that strategic volunteer engagement could support funders and nonprofits in advancing their equity work.* (See The Intersection of Equity and Strategic Volunteer Engagement blog from March 2024). He was particularly interested in practical steps funders could take to support strategic volunteer engagement. Jane offered several recommendations.

  • Reflect on experiences as a volunteer. Jane talked about how many funders are also volunteers. She often invites them to compare volunteer experiences that were good and those that didn’t hit the mark: “What was present and what was lacking in each one of those? What were the ramifications of those experiences for the organization?” Reflecting on these experiences provides insight into how funders might use their grantmaking to create the conditions for service that is meaningful. 

  • Get familiar with the research on the value of investing in strategic volunteer engagement. For example, a study by TCC Group found that organizations that had 50 volunteers and engaged them well performed better than peer organizations on all core organizational capacities. Another study by Fidelity Charity found that a majority of high-net worth donors who volunteered gave up to ten times more than non-volunteers, and most donated to the organizations where they served. Jane shared that many funders she knows aren’t aware of these data points and the implications for nonprofit missions and operations. 

  • Include questions about volunteer engagement on grant applications. The Leighty Foundation asks prospective nonprofit partners how they will involve volunteers in the work. Jane shared a sample question, “What are you able to do that you wouldn’t be able to without volunteer energy?” That puts the right question on the table and moves volunteer conversations beyond the number of people who served or their hours contributed. 

  • Discuss volunteer engagement with current nonprofit partners. Just because an agency involves volunteers does not mean they are investing in volunteer engagement or integrating volunteers into the overall agency strategy. Talking about the roles that volunteers play, their ability to expand agency impact, and their contributions to the mission helps elevate the value of volunteers and the power of engaging the community as partners in the cause. 

  • Invest in infrastructure for volunteer engagement. Jane observed that if funders don’t invest in infrastructure, an agency’s volunteer efforts “may be more like a crowd than a well-oiled machine that has people using their energy where they can best make the difference.” Sufficient funding can make the difference between a volunteer experience that turns someone off serving and one that feels like they did something important and that used their skills. 

  • Consider power dynamics. Marcus added a recommendation about the importance of being mindful of how power influences the funder-nonprofit relationship and that trust-based philanthropy principles have merit in conversations about volunteerism and community. He pointed out “that the people aren’t broken, the structures are. The systems need attention. Deploying energy strategically to respond to those breakdowns reshapes communities in ways that are more affirming and uplifting.” 

To further support funders interested in strategic volunteer engagement, Jane shared two resources from The Leighty Foundation.

  • The Funder’s Guide to Investing in Volunteer Engagement builds a case for supporting volunteerism including current research and tools for assessing a nonprofit’s capacity to engage volunteers, along with approaches and models of funder investment. 

  • Partnering with Funders to Unleash the Power of Volunteers is a companion resource for nonprofit leaders. It offers tips on identifying the agency’s framing of service, tools for capacity assessment, insights about what funders want to know about volunteer engagement, and coaching on building a case for support. 

Promoting the power of volunteer engagement investing has been a lonely path over the 35 years that Jane has been recruiting others to the cause. She wrapped up the conversation by expressing gratitude to Marcus for being a kindred spirit on this journey and connecting the dots between it and efforts to advance equity in and through the nonprofit sector. “We need to keep on keeping on. We’re beginning to gather others in the philanthropic community who really begin to see the much bigger picture.”

*This blog is based on a conversation between Marcus Walton and Jane Leighty Justus as part of the video presentation for Exponent Philanthropy’s national conference held virtually in 2021.

Photo credit: Geralt on Pixabay