“When you give yourself, you receive more than you give.”Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French novelist (1900-1944)
I was pleased to see a report from Fidelity Charitable, “The Role of Volunteering in Philanthropy” (2021). Fidelity noted, “The overlap between financial and volunteer support indicates that many donors are deeply invested in making an impact on the causes they care most about. Meaningful volunteer opportunities can build bonds that strengthen and enrich the donor-nonprofit relationship.”
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 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. If you gain nothing else from this article, I hope you will take volunteers seriously, and manage and engage them with TLC.
“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.
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 to be raised. 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.
I wanted to acknowledge the late Susan J. Ellis founder of Energize (a program of Adisa).
“Widely recognized for her knowledge, her indefatigable spirit, and her relentless promotion of volunteerism, Susan J. Ellis was one of the early leaders in the professionalization of the volunteer management field. Following her express wishes, the Ellis estate established the Susan J. Ellis Foundation to ensure continued support for the field.”
- Elizabeth Abbess has written for How Stuff Works, “Where Can I Volunteer If I’m Handicapped?” (n.d.). On the second page of this helpful article are links to additional articles on topics that range from volunteering to help veterans to volunteering abroad.
- AmeriCorps shares volunteering statistics for each state online (follow the link).
- Blackbaud, “5 Volunteer Retention Challenges and How to Overcome Them” (May 2, 2022).
- I was not aware until a few years ago that Sir Richard Branson authored a book more than a decade ago entitled, “Worldwide Volunteering for Young People” (Parkwest Publications). You can acquire it online.
- Eric Burger of Volunteer Hub wrote for GuideStar, “Converting Volunteers to Donors: Missed Opportunity for Most Nonprofits” (November 8, 2018).
- Catchafire is a skills-based program that matches professionals with nonprofits based on their skills, cause interest and time availability.
- Latasha Doyle wrote for the GuideStar Blog, “Why Corporate Volunteerism and VTO Are On the Rise” (June 5, 2019). “When a company provides a solid VTO program, it also attracts talented, passionate potential employees who are more apt to fit in with the company culture. These employees are more likely to feel loyal to and proud of their company when their values align. Skilled employees who are happy with their jobs will improve operations and cut down on time spent finding and training new employees. Companies are noticing this, which is a major part of why VTO is on the rise. In fact, as of 2018, nearly one in four companies in the United States were using VTO to their advantage. It makes sense that other businesses will begin to offer these benefits as well to meet current demand (and especially to attract Millennial and Gen Z employees).”
- Sharon Illsen has written for VolunteerMatch, “Blurred Lines: Turning Donors Into Volunteers … Into Donors” (May 16, 2014).
- Sharon Ilsen also wrote for VolunteerMatch, “How Flash Volunteer is Using VolunteerMatch APIs to Expand Its Reach” (April 23, 2013). “… Flash Volunteer, a web-based engagement portal for volunteering … allows users to find volunteer opportunities and create their own volunteer events to support causes they care about. The service is built by volunteers, for volunteers, and specializes in group activities such as park cleanups, trail builds, and other single-day events. It uses the power of social media to create opportunities for ‘Cause Crowds,’ flash-mob-style volunteer events.”
- Ryan Scott has written for Forbes, “Helping Employees Volunteer the Way They Want To” (January 22, 2016).
- Independent Sector shares annually, “The Value of Volunteer Time.” It is impressive.
- Here is an innovative approach to volunteering. Kathi Jaworski has written for NPQ, “Do Small Incentives for Volunteers and Business Generate Big Resources for Nonprofits?” (September 4, 2013). “SwapServe, a new for-profit social enterprise in Portland, Ore. is banking on a web-based strategy to connect small businesses and volunteers to smaller scale nonprofit initiatives. Its mission is to ‘make volunteering a way of life for more people.’”
- Sixty+Me shares information about older adults and volunteering, including resources to find volunteer opportunities (August 28, 2020).
- VolunteerMatch is a nonprofit organization that offers “a variety of online services to support a community of nonprofit, volunteer and business leaders committed to civic engagement.” VolunteerMatch has become a trusted “internet recruiting tool for more than 88,000 nonprofit organizations.”
I learned about and then met John Hernandez of HelpAction.Org during recent emergency situations in Central Texas. Check out his nonprofit and learn how to text to volunteer, and help others.
Images illustrating this article are courtesy of Adobe Creative Cloud.