The Donors Right in Front of You
If you start to read this newsletter and you lose interest when you see the word “volunteers”, do yourself a favor and keep reading. You’ll see why in a bit.
I’ve been noticing a number of articles lately lamenting the decline of volunteers. A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy was titled, “Why and How Charities Should Revive a Declining but Vital Resource…Volunteers.” In the article, Jennifer Bennett of Volunteer Match says “…charities that made few efforts to remain connected to volunteers in 2020 and 2021 will spend years rebuilding volunteer programs.” She adds, “It’s not just a lack of institutional knowledge, but a rupture in the relationship. Charities that laid off volunteer managers and didn’t have a strategy for keeping the communication lines open with volunteers are back to starting from scratch.”
Much of this happened because when Covid started, many nonprofits, faced with an existential threat, panicked. For a large number of them, the panic resulted in — no surprise — cutting the non-revenue producing staff. Volunteer coordinators are often thought of as “nice to have” as opposed to essential.
But are volunteers really not essential and/or non-revenue producing? The article continues by saying, “It’s also a missed opportunity, some experts point out. The return on investment in a strong volunteer program — primarily, the donated work that organizations might otherwise have to pay for — often far exceeds the money they spend on oversight and salaries for volunteerism professionals. And a talented cadre of volunteers can help depleted charities continue to serve clients at a time when many organizations are struggling to fill open positions.”
In another section of the same article, Volunteer Iowa’s Michelle Raymer says “For every dollar you’re saving, you’re losing even more from having fewer volunteers coming into your organization.” The article goes on to say “Robust volunteering programs are also valuable because of the close association between volunteers and donors. A person who becomes familiar with an organization through volunteering is likely to eventually become a donor.”
Is the goal for a volunteer to eventually become a donor? (In this case, “donor” means a financial donor.) According to the Global Trends in Giving report (2020), 85% of volunteers are also donors to the same nonprofit they volunteer for. If that’s true, should our goal really be to get even more of the volunteers to “become donors”?
Why do these two — donors and volunteers — need to be mutually exclusive?
Volunteer Hub says that “volunteers are 66% more likely to donate financially to the organization they support than those who do not volunteer their time.” In terms of dollars, this study found that Americans who volunteer at nonprofits give an average of 10 times more money to charity than people who don’t volunteer.
Here are a few other head-turning stats:
There are over 1 billion volunteers globally, and approximately 63 million Americans volunteer annually.
In 2019, 77.9M American adults volunteered 5.8B hours, with a corresponding economic value of about $147B. (Note that amount does not include cash contributions.)
Per this report from Fidelity Charitable, 87% of volunteers say there is an overlap between their volunteer and financial support, and 50% of volunteers say they give more financial support because they volunteer.
Also, per the Fidelity report, high-net-worth volunteers give up to ten times more money than non-volunteers, and most donate to the organizations in which they are involved.
Want to engage younger donors? Many studies show that younger donors (Millennials, Gen Z, etc.) are much more likely to give to an organization that they trust, and they “check out” the organizations they’re interested in by volunteering.
The 2016 Millennial Impact Report showed that 72% of millennials studied had volunteered in the year prior to the report, and 84% had made a donation to a nonprofit.
As many of you know (but it bears repeating — often), $68T will be transferred to the younger generation (US) over the next 25 years. It’s the largest wealth transfer in history.
So what does this all tell us? It tells us that putting volunteers into one “box” and putting donors into another, mutually exclusive box, isn’t helpful. In fact, the new donors who can sustain our organizations long term may be right in front of us — and we just don’t see them.
This isn’t only true for young people. Witness bequests, where receiving “surprise” gifts from donors that aren’t on your “major donor” list is a common occurrence. Most nonprofits are surprised to find out that, although the bequest donor wasn’t on your “list”, they had been volunteering for your organization. And you had no idea they existed.
Can donors and volunteers be thought of both as significant partners with (and supporters of) your nonprofit? You bet.
This blog entry by philanthropist Jane Leighty Justis reinforces my point. The Leighty Foundation funded and directed a five-year initiative to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations in the (Colorado Springs) area. The results clearly demonstrate, as Leighty Justice explains, “a strong connection between organizations that operate with volunteer engagement as a core strategy for mission accomplishment, and the overall health and effectiveness of the organization.” Points of Light — the largest network of volunteer-mobilizing organizations in the world — confirms the critical impact of robust volunteer programs on nonprofits.
Organizations that fundamentally leverage volunteers and their skills to accomplish their missions are significantly more adaptable, sustainable and capable of going to scale. 
Organizations that effectively engage volunteers are as equally successful in accomplishing their mission as their peers without volunteers, but at almost half the median budget. 
Effective volunteer engagement has been shown in some cases to reap up to a $6 return on every dollar invested when considering the financial value of volunteer involvement. 
Jane Leighty Justis puts it this way, “Volunteers are vastly underused, yet they’re a virtually unlimited renewable resource.” According to the research shown above, the majority of these volunteers both volunteer and donate. But what about our boxes, then, with their corresponding staff, databases, and (often) separate resources? How can this be?
As my new friend Tim Arnold says, “Take a deep breath and say, ‘hey, both of these things can be true.’” I know it’s not the way you might have been taught, but donors and volunteers can not only co-exist, they can be donors, volunteers, or both — and that’s not only okay, it’s terrific! When someone is both a donor and a volunteer, we should celebrate these “hybrid supporters” as opposed to being befuddled by their existence.
Let’s change the way we work with everyone and anyone who is inspired by the work we do — and let’s stop needing them to stay in their “assigned” categories. Let’s start thinking of all our supporters as human beings who want us to succeed in our mission. The result — lower costs, increased revenue, and fulfilled supporters — can dramatically transform our organizations for the better.
2023 is a few weeks away and it’s never too late to set yourself up for success! Lisa is now providing coaching to nonprofit professionals and executives. Please email us if you’d like to discuss ways Lisa can help you and your organization increase the size of your donor “pie” and increase your revenue!
Lisa Greer is Saving Giving by providing a clear path to success, supported by data, statistics, and interviews. You can find more great newsletters like this one here on Philanthropy 451, in my bestselling book, Philanthropy Revolution, or on Twitter, and LinkedIn to learn more.