Volunteering and Charitable Giving

“When you give yourself, you receive more than you give.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French novelist (1900-1944)

U.S. Trust in partnership with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy published, “The 2018 U.S. Trust Study of High Net-Worth Philanthropy.” They note:

“The main factors that motivated volunteering were responding to an organizational need (65%), believing that the individual can make a difference (56%), the alignment of the organization with the individual’s personal values or beliefs (52%), and being concerned about those less fortunate, or about a particular cause or group being served (43% each).”

I have found staff members of some nonprofit organizations are fearful of engaging major gift donors and prospects as volunteers. But they should not be. Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund and VolunteerMatch collaborated on a national study that found, “Americans who volunteer their time and skills to nonprofit organizations donate an average of 10 times more money to charity than people who don’t volunteer.”

Those who have worked in the nonprofit sector for some time as I have recognize that individuals who give of their time and talents can also be quite generous with their financial contributions. As volunteers witness and appreciate the work being accomplished by nonprofit organizations, they become more closely bonded to the nonprofit and its mission.

Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc. states:

“There are certain similarities between volunteers and donors:

  • Both must be found and nurtured.
  • Both must come to believe in your cause and in your organization.
  • Both must value philanthropic activity.
  • Both must feel that their contribution can be helpful.
  • Both need to be recognized.
  • Both can generate a ripple effect of goodwill, community education, and other positive promotion to bring in even more supporters.
  • Both can eventually stop contributing.”

I wanted to share a heartwarming story of my own to underscore the value of volunteers. What nonprofit staff will also learn here is that they have a role to play in inspiring donors and volunteers to give generously.

It’s Impossible!

I agreed to tackle a major gift campaign after it stalled in the aftermath of 9-11. Approximately $4 million had already been secured, but another $5 million remained. Existing donors and volunteers were psychologically exhausted, yet the project itself was a gem.

Doing the work literally by hand without formal staffing (in fact, the staff refused to work on the project at all as they felt it was, “impossible”), I dug into the situation in depth. I learned two prior consultants had thrown up their hands and resigned. Before being hired, a significant grant request upon which everyone had placed high hopes had been declined. A seven-figure grant had been returned because no progress on the project had been made. The situation looked pretty grim.

Despite this, hope remained among the organization’s volunteers and supporters. They wanted to see the capital campaign succeed and the new facility come to fruition.

Digging Out From the Wreckage … In Style

My work was cut out for me. From the failed grant proposal I developed an attractive, factual and informative case for support document that our volunteers could carry with them on fundraising calls. The content was beautifully but simply designed using Microsoft Word, it was chocked-full of impressive facts and photographs, and once printed at the little copy shot, it was attractive to set out at home or in the office. To this we added a “virtual tour” of the proposed new wing, which replaced a lackluster PowerPoint presentation. Formal campaign meetings were being requested; grant proposals were being formulated.

To make a long story short, it became clear to donors and organizational insiders that real work was being done. My sense of the situation is they had lost faith in the staff as well as the project’s potential for completion.


One of my favorite memories is of a longtime, beloved gift shop volunteer who came to work regularly during the week, asking nothing more than to sit in the museum shop to support our one-person shop manager. One day I was sitting at my desk quietly pouring over campaign details. This lovely volunteer wandered in quietly and said, “you know, I think I could pledge $100,000.” I had no idea this nice person had the capability to make such a gift. And as it happens, that gift was eventually doubled by the conclusion of the campaign, and that volunteer remains one of my all-time heroes.

Another volunteer whose primary project was organizing and implementing a popular annual holiday luncheon dropped by my desk one day and without being asked, sat down and wrote me a five-figure check. Again, the volunteer increased that donation more than once before the campaign concluded. Another genuine hero!

To top it off, the most extraordinary volunteer of all worked with me side-by-side almost daily (including several evenings and occasionally on weekends), to develop fundraising strategies and to participate in fundraising calls. This went on for three years. That volunteer also increased their initial contribution substantially, leading ultimately to their naming the new facility itself. And we also became friends.

These are a few examples of hardworking volunteers and major gift donors who helped make our major gift campaign a success. I cannot say strongly enough: this project would never have succeeded without them.

Staff Have a Role to Play

I do not think these volunteers would have given as generously if they had not watched me working on that project intensely by hand, knowing I would do my best to see it through to its conclusion and to the highest possible standards. Staff working hard – failing and succeeding – honestly and with integrity makes a difference. This fact is rarely discussed by volunteer managers and nonprofit fundraising professionals. Staff have a part to play.

You can see then why I believe volunteering is such a key part of the nonprofit sector, one deserving of more attention than some nonprofit organizations are willing to give it. If you are one of the latter, please reconsider … volunteers are truly a blessing. 

Additional Resources

Need to coordinate your volunteers and give them the TLC they deserve? You might get in touch with James McGirr about his volunteer management platform, GivePulse.

Thanks to the free image library of Adobe Spark for the images used to illustrate this article.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.