According to the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund of the Aspen Institute, 49% of U.S. adults do volunteer work. The average volunteer donates 157 hours of effort per year (13 hours/month) and, in aggregate, accounts for about one third of the effort-hours expended by nonprofits.
There are many reasons why you might want to involve more volunteers in the work of your nonprofit. One obvious reason is that volunteers are not paid for the work they do, and can be looked at as unpaid staff members who are capable of doing virtually any or all of the work of a nonprofit. The higher the percentage of nonprofit work done by unpaid staff, the lower the cost of delivering services to the community, and the more services that can be delivered for any given funding level. For example, the Executive Coaches of Orange County is an all volunteer organization, and that enables it to offer all of its services free of charge, with very little need to do any fund raising.
A second benefit is that volunteers can provide the specialized expertise needed to run a nonprofit in a highly professional manner; expertise that most small nonprofits lack (a chief financial officer, a human resources manager, a marketing or public relations manager, a computer systems manager, and so forth). Unpaid staff members can give a small nonprofit the diversity of expertise it might need to have a highly professional management team at a very affordable cost.
A third benefit is publicity. Most nonprofits cannot afford to invest in the media buys (print, radio and TV) that can make their nonprofit well known in their community. They are highly dependent on word-of-mouth publicity. Volunteers can be a major source of this word-of-mouth publicity because they tend to tell their friends about the volunteer work that they do, and in the process speak highly of the nonprofit that they work for. The more volunteers that a nonprofit has, the more publicity that it gets, the higher its public profile becomes in the community. Some hospitals and arts organizations have very high profile reputations in our community that, in no small part, is due to the armies of volunteers that are involved in their various guilds.
These three benefits, in combination, can also give a nonprofit an enormous advantage in competing for grants: by enabling a nonprofit to offer a better value for the funder by delivering its services at a lower than normal cost, by having a highly professional management team and operation, and by being very well known and respected in the community.
According to a study by Professor Ross Gittell at the University of New Hampshire, Californians give an average of 3.7% of their income to charities, or an average of $1800 per household. This percentage increases for people with advanced degrees, people over age 55, and people that volunteer. Education and age are also correlated with higher incomes. In addition, there is a trend for donors to focus their philanthropy, giving larger amounts to a smaller number of charities. Nonprofits that involve these high potential donors as volunteers are much more likely to be the recipients of major gifts and bequests.
My own story fits well with this giving model. Prior to retiring from Procter and Gamble in 1994, I donated about 100 hours/year managing donor development and special event teams, and sitting on a couple of Boards. I donated about 3% of my income in small amounts to a wide variety of charities. I had no real passion for doing any of this, but did it because it seemed like the right thing to do.
After leaving P&G, I started up my own business, but gradually found myself spending more of time as a volunteer, which seemed to fuel my passion for the nonprofit sector. Last year I spent 1600 hours volunteering, and gave 27% of my income to nonprofits, with the vast majority of it going to just five nonprofits that I am most heavily involved with and committed to. A well designed volunteer program can be a significant asset in helping your nonprofit to develop donors into major contributors to your cause.
Another advantage of having a volunteer organization is that it gives a nonprofit the capability to execute large special events like inspirational dinners that tend to bond donors to a nonprofit. Special events typically require dozens, or even hundreds of volunteers to manage all the details required to create an event that is truly special for the attendees, helping you make your nonprofit their favorite nonprofit.
Lastly, our clients tell us that their biggest barrier to developing and implementing capacity building strategies is the difficulty of attracting energetic people to serve on their Board and its committees. Nonprofits with a large volunteer program have a pool of active people available to develop and promote into committee leaders and Board members.
With all the advantages of using volunteers in nonprofits, why don’t more nonprofits do more of it? The answer I hear most often is that the nonprofit tried it and it did not work. Obviously, it is not the volunteers that did not work, because volunteers have and are working successfully as employees in a wide variety of roles in other organizations. What failed was the nonprofit’s ability to manage an effective volunteer program. In our next letter, we will discuss strategies for developing a volunteer program that might become more of a major asset to your nonprofit.