Funding ‘Free’

November 1, 2012       Susan Ellis      

It’s a paradox. In a bad economy, more people are in need of the services provided by nonprofits just as it gets harder to raise funds for those services. People see that volunteers are important and organizations try to recruit more of them.

Yet when budget cutting is necessary, executives slash or even eliminate the internal support necessary to engage volunteers effectively. The person desig­nated to manage volunteers is often the first position to go, ironically, with the explanation of “we have to focus on fundraising first.”

It is self-defeating to put money before people.

No check ever writes itself. A prospective financial donor must feel some connection to the organization before wanting to give money. Second, research shows that volunteers tend to give more money than non-volunteers. Third, while one person transmits the monetary gift, it is likely that other family members and friends of the named donor are also contributing time and talent to the organization.

Perhaps the worst consequence of reducing the budget for volunteer involvement while supposedly concentrating on fundraising is that it limits the organization solely to what money can buy. The right volunteers, asked to do the right things, leverage all financial donations. They allow an organization to spend every cent it raises and then do more.

In light of this reality, organizations ought to be fundraising for volunteer engagement, describing the potential results of strategic volunteering and explaining the costs involved (at a great cost-benefit ratio) when seeking grants and gifts. Rarely do proposals to foundations and corporations request money to strengthen volunteering. Special events are not held specifically to raise money to support volunteers, who are usually the ones making all special events successful.

It’s not that organizations are unable to generate funds to sustain meaningful volunteering, it’s that they are not even trying to do so.

Funders can have an impact

On the other side of the equation, it would seem important for any donor or grant-making body — including federal government agencies — to ask questions about whether and how an organization will include volunteers in making the most of money received. Few do it.

All funders want their donations to be used well. That is the ostensible reason for asking agencies to submit project proposals, rather than choosing recipients out of a hat.

Given the influence that comes from controlling the purse strings, funders have a unique opportunity to advocate for volunteers. If they would insist on appropriate integration of volunteers into service planning and delivery, there would be vastly increased attention to volunteer management issues.

There are three major, yet relatively easy, ways that a grant-giving body can raise volunteering and community participation to new visibility. All could be integrated into existing proposal processes.

• Funders can require all grant proposals to include a section on how volunteers will be involved in the project for which money is sought. It should be expected that a responsible nonprofit wants to engage the community in its work and understands how skilled volunteers can stretch donated dollars.

The simple addition to a grant application of the instruction, “please explain how volunteers will be engaged in the proposed activity,” can make a world of difference. If no volunteer involvement is planned, the proposal would then need to explain why and the granting body could raise questions about the rationale. Suddenly there would be an incentive for organization executives to be as thoughtful about time donors as about money donors.

• Funders can encourage requests to fund the position of volunteer resources manager. If a proposal describes a plan to recruit and train a new or expanded corps of volunteers, shouldn’t the budget reflect what it would take to accomplish this? It should be a red flag if no staff position or allocated time to coordinate volunteers is mentioned in the budget. Funders see the connection between management and results, so it is a mystery that most organizations never even ask for appropriate staffing to support volunteers.

• In monitoring and assessing the results of grants, funders should expect reports on the degree of volunteer involvement achieved (quantity) and its impact (quality). Once community participation has been proposed, financed, and implemented, someone should be interested in assessing whether the effort was fruitful.

Funders genuinely wanting to advocate for stronger acceptance of volunteers have the power to do so. They can reject proposals from organizations unwilling to consider how the right volunteers might expand the success of their projects and services. An organization seeking gifts of cash while refusing donations of talent is not a good steward of available resources.

Individual donors can ask questions, too

There are already individuals who will not give money to an organization that cannot present evidence of effective involvement of volunteers, for all the reasons just described. Yet it is not easy to uncover information about an organization’s community engagement, particularly as a single donor.

When the federal Form 990 was revised a few years ago, the changes made volunteers less visible. An optional question about whether the organization benefitted from volunteer services used to be on the basic form; today it has been moved to a table not even used by smaller organizations. The message from the government is quite clear, even if unintentional: Volunteers are not essential to operations, costs, or revenue.

This attitude is aided and abetted by the accounting profession, which continues to negate the value of volunteers by relegating them to a standard footnote in audit reports. Amazing though it might seem, an organization totally dependent on volunteers for delivery of its primary services, such as a youth mentoring program, is not required or expected to account for this core human resource in any official documentation.

There is no prohibition against reporting about volunteers, so any organization could decide to spotlight the importance of donated time and skills, whether by completing the optional Form 990 table or simply including much more information about volunteers in the text of its annual report. This might start to happen if donors begin to ask “are you leveraging my money with volunteers?”

Wouldn’t it be worth experimenting to see if shining a spotlight on how an organization welcomes skilled volunteers and what those volunteers accomplish alongside paid staff would actually result in raising more money? Perhaps creative volunteer engagement will be revealed as the secret weapon of fundraising!

Various online sites are also trying to help prospective donors make informed decisions about where to give money. A “score” for each organization on its volunteer involvement would certainly add to the evaluative data. Simply relying on the most recent Form 990 perpetuates the problem: The government is not asking about volunteers so no one else bothers. Someone has to break the circle of silence.

Since “money talks,” funders and donors have a strong effect on the ways that agencies operate. If volunteer involvement becomes more integrated with organizational development, and is rewarded with more funds, then executives will truly start paying attention.

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia, Pa.-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and the Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program (www.everyoneready.info). Her email is susan@energizeinc.com. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com

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