Stretching Your Grant Budget with Volunteers

It’s a typical dilemma — the project is crucial, but the price tag exceeds the maximum request the funder allows. None of the options for dealing with this quandary offer a smooth, all-air solution. Trying to piece the budget together through various grant proposals is a logistical nightmare. 

Scaling back the project’s scope will erode your ability to meet the defined community need. There’s tough competition for your organization’s discretionary funds and you’re unlikely to convince administrators to spend down the hard-earned nest egg on a new endeavor.  

Since personnel costs are the lion’s share of most grant budgets, including a volunteer component in the program plan is a common response to the low-cap scenario. 

“Engaging community volunteers can bring a host of benefits and add substantial in-kind value to the budget,” said Barbara Floersch, grant expert and author of the new book You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. “But a robust volunteer program is not budget neutral. It costs money.” Floersch encourages nonprofits to weigh the demands and benefits of a volunteer program carefully before going all-in.  

  • Can you recruit volunteers with the right knowledge and skills? Helping in the homeless shelter’s kitchen is entirely different than providing one-on-one support to young people struggling with opioid addiction. “Take a hard look at project needs and ask yourself whether volunteers are a good option,” said Floersch. “Sometimes volunteer training will make it work. Other times, only professional level expertise is appropriate.”
  • What systems will you need? Think of volunteers as employees who don’t get paid. Like employees, they’ll need job descriptions, they’ll submit time sheets, and they’ll be expected to abide by the organization’s policies and procedures. Proper screening of volunteers is always essential, but sloppy screening can be fatal for some projects, such as those serving vulnerable populations. “Strong, detailed systems protect the volunteers, the beneficiaries, and the organization. Do background checks just as you would for employees and consider liability issues from all perspectives. Make sure the right insurance coverage is in place,” said Floersch. 
  • Who will manage the volunteers? Once the volunteers are in place, they need to be trained,  supervised, and recognized for their work. Solid management increases volunteer effectiveness and retention, so be sure to include the responsibility for volunteer management in someone’s job description. “Managing even two or three volunteers requires dedicated staff time,” said Floersch. “Managing a large volunteer program properly can require one or more FTEs.”

In the right circumstances and with solid planning, a volunteer program can deliver a big payload of service at a fraction of what professional staffing would cost. Working side by side with volunteers can also help nonprofits refine their alignment with the communities they serve. “Tap into the power of volunteers when the situation is right,” said Floersch. “A well-managed volunteer program is a powerful tool.” © Barbara Floersch 2021