Making the Most of Volunteers

Are your volunteers worth their weight in gold, or are they simply weighing you down?

By Laura Edman, Vice President, The Alford Group   Read Laura’s Bio

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Why do I bother with volunteers? It would be so much easier if I just do this myself.”

I admit it; over my 30-plus years as a fundraising professional, that thought has crossed my mind more than once. Yet whenever that happens, I think about the many times during my career when volunteers have made the critical difference between success and failure, between reaching that stretch campaign goal and falling short, or between successfully recruiting that key board member and having them turn down the opportunity.

So, how can you make sure that your volunteers really are worth their weight in gold, instead of being too much trouble to bother with? Here are some tips that might help you and some resources for more information.

Why are volunteers important?

First, why are volunteers so important?  What can they do that staff can’t do?  The answers are numerous!  Here are a just a handful:

  • Donor respect: Your donors – and potential donors – will almost always respond positively to volunteers, especially when they are perceived as peers. Commonly, donors reserve a special level of respect and courtesy for volunteers that is different than with staff members.
  • Powerful stories: If you’ve ever listened to a passionate volunteer describe what they love about your organization and why they support it, you know that volunteers have powerful stories. I’ve watched donors get emotional and even tear-up when a volunteer talked about how her local children’s hospital saved her young daughter’s life.  You can’t buy that kind of reaction!
  • Local connection: Volunteers provide a direct link to the community at large. Your board members are the most obvious example of this, but mining the connections of your program volunteers can yield many other important links to benefit your organization.
  • Validation: Because – by nature – they aren’t paid for their efforts, volunteers add credibility to your cause. Anyone who provides their time and talents without payment acts as a validator of your organization’s work.
  • Expanded capabilities: Volunteers broaden your reach and expand staff capabilities. If you can’t afford to hire more staff, think about the multiplier impact of having a cadre of dedicated, trained volunteers helping you cultivate, solicit and steward your donors.  And how about those board members with professional expertise that lend their knowledge and experience to your cause?
  • Appreciated candidness: Volunteers can say things that staff can’t. When one of our former clients was visiting with a potential donor to ask for a $5 million campaign gift, the wonderful volunteer happily remarked that such a gift would be “a piece of cake” for the potential donor.   While staff held their breath, the potential donor smiled, acknowledged the bold statement, and eventually agreed to the gift!
  • Direct impact: Never underestimate the power of committed volunteers. One of my most rewarding campaign engagements was led by a small group of volunteers who raised more than $9 million to fund local park improvements, armed only with a brand-new 501(c)(3) designation, one part-time staff person, and – of course – a driving passion for their very worthy cause!
  • Volunteers = donors: In addition to creating impact as a volunteer, many also become donors to your cause. Volunteers are almost twice as likely to donate to charity as non-volunteers. Nearly 4 out of 5 volunteers are also donors (79%) compared to only 4 out of 10 non-volunteers. Of all contributions to charitable organizations, 84% are given by households that also volunteer.

Key Question: Are you asking your volunteers to make gifts?  Or are you still thinking, “They already give their time, we can’t ask them for their money too.”

Who volunteers?

So, who are these magical people who can create this incredible impact? Here are some interesting facts about who in our country is volunteering:

  • In 2015 (the most recent available data), over 62 million adults in our country reported that they did at least some volunteer work during the previous year. That’s nearly 1 out of every 4 adults in America (23.5%).
  • One of the most encouraging trends over the last 25 years is the dramatic increase in the number of teenagers who are volunteering. In 1989, only 13.4% of teens volunteered.  By 2015, that number had increased to 25.2%.
  • This growth could be driven in part by an increase in school-sponsored community service opportunities. A 2008 national survey of school principals found that 86% of public high schools organized such activities, compared to only 27% of public high schools in 1984.
  • Even more encouraging is the attitude about volunteering among our young adults. A 2015 survey of first-year college students found an all-time high in the percentage who said that helping others in difficulty was a “very important” or “essential” personal objective.
  • On the other end of the age spectrum, it’s encouraging to note that the volunteer rate for older Americans, ages 65+, was 23.5% in 2015 – the same percentage of the adult population as a whole who volunteer.

Key Question: Are you engaging teens and young adults in your volunteer programs?

Why do they volunteer?

The good news about volunteering isn’t just on the organization’s side of the ledger.  There’s good news for volunteers as well.  Did you know, for example, that there is a significant correlation between volunteering and good health, especially in later years.  When individuals volunteer they not only help their community, but also experience physical and mental health benefits including greater life satisfaction, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression, and “helper’s high.”

Here are a few additional reasons people volunteer:

  • Belief in your mission, in the worthiness of your organization, and knowing that it meets critical community needs
  • A sincere desire to help others, and feeling connected to something bigger than themselves
  • A sense of loyalty or gratitude for your organization, and friendship or respect for those who are involved
  • Opportunities for networking, recognition, and meeting people and having fun!

A survey by Independent Sector found that:

  • 86% volunteer out of compassion for those in need.
  • 72% of volunteers are interested in the type of activity or work involved.
  • 70% volunteer to gain a new perspective.
  • 63% volunteer because of importance of the activity to people the volunteer respects.

Key Question:  Have you asked your volunteers why they volunteer? 

Where do you find dependable volunteers?

Now for some tips about finding good volunteers, motivating them, and helping them be worth their weight in gold to your organization.

So where can you find volunteers?  The good news is that they are closer than you think.  You can start by looking at the people who are closest to you, people who are already associated with your organization.  Here’s a helpful diagram:

Here are some key characteristics to look for as well:

  • Influence
  • Affluence & generosity
  • Advocacy & action
  • Wisdom
  • Dedication
  • Enthusiasm & eloquence
  • Tenacity
  • Wit

Learn about key characteristics to look for to find excellent board members.

How do you keep volunteers motivated?

Once you’ve taken the time to successfully recruit a great volunteer, it’s important to know what will keep them motivated and energized, and feeling good about the great work they are doing.  Be sure you:

  • Clearly describe what’s expected of them. A written job description is a great tool, for you and for your volunteer.
  • Make their work meaningful. The days of volunteers stuffing envelopes for hours on end are gone (thank goodness!).  Volunteers want to put their experience, life skills, and talents to good use.
  • Provide the tools, training and ongoing support they need to do their work. And don’t forget about where they are working – is the area clean, neat, and welcoming?  Check in regularly to see if there’s something else they need.
  • Always be thankful and express your appreciation. There’s no such thing as saying “thank you” too often!

Key Question:  Do you know what kinds of activities each of your volunteers would enjoy most, and be most successful with?

the golden rule

One last thought to ponder:  consider your own volunteer activities.  What motivated you to help an organization, and to stick with it even when there are countless other ways to use your valuable time?  The Golden Rule applies here, too.  If you treat your volunteers the way you want to be treated, you’ll find that they can definitely be worth their weight in gold!

For more information about volunteers in America and the data cited in this blog post, here are some resources: