December 2018

Seeking Funder Support for Volunteer Engagement? Assess Your Approach!

By Betsy McFarland

Hi there! I’m Betsy McFarland. Susan J. Ellis introduced me in her September Hot Topic as one of the consultants and trainers working with Energize, Inc. Just as my fellow consultants/trainers have done in the last couple of months, I will share a little more about my expertise and a timely volunteer engagement issue that we should discuss.

Who am I and why am I part of the Energize team?

Susan has been a hero and mentor of mine for twenty years. Like so many leaders of volunteers, I fell into volunteer engagement. After moving to a new state, I started volunteering at the local animal shelter and quickly realized they needed a lot of help. It was a revolving door of volunteers—no infrastructure or support, and an organization overwhelmed in the day-to-day. I jumped in without knowing anything about volunteer engagement and just figured things out to attract more community support.

Finding Susan and other experts such as Betty Stallings was a lifesaver! I devoured every article, purchased their books, and immersed myself in everything volunteerism. I’m forever grateful for their prolific publications and abundant support of the field!

I went on to spend 18 years at The Humane Society of the United States where I spearheaded the launch of The Humane Society National Volunteer Center, the first broad-scale coordinated volunteer effort in the history of the organization, which now engages thousands of volunteers across the country. I also authored a book, Volunteer Management for Animal Care Organizations, and published research on staff-volunteer relationships and worked with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. That work resulted in the creation of a research-supported Volunteer Program Assessment model that serves nonprofit volunteer programs across the U.S. and Canada.

I now co-lead Adisa—a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations leverage and unleash talent to meet their important missions. In addition to consulting and training, I work with Energize, Inc, as a director and faculty member of the Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program.

What is my burning issue in volunteer engagement?

More than ever before, volunteer engagement holds the power to help organizations achieve their missions. Yet, a large percentage of nonprofit organizations that say they desperately need volunteer help also say they do not have the infrastructure to effectively deploy additional volunteers. As a result, poor management and lack of support are a couple of the primary reasons people stop volunteering.

At the same time, funding specifically for volunteer engagement remains elusive. Have you ever inquired about funding for volunteer engagement and had a funder say, “Oh, we don’t fund volunteers, we fund child advocacy (or insert your cause here)”?

Where’s the disconnect? And how can we increase financial support for the critical, renewable resource of volunteers?

To effectively break through this impasse, as leaders of volunteers we need to take a good, hard look at our approach and increase the dialogue with the philanthropic community to develop a shared understanding of just how impactful volunteers can be. We all know volunteer engagement can increase an organization’s capacity well beyond what staff alone can achieve. We now have research on our side, evident in the findings listed below:

  • Organizations that fundamentally leverage volunteers and their skills to accomplish their missions are significantly more adaptable, sustainable, and capable of going to scale.1
  • Organizations that engage volunteers are equally as effective as their peers without volunteers—many at almost half the median budget.2
  • A majority of high-net-worth donors who volunteer give ten times more money than non-volunteers—and most donate to the organizations in which they are involved.3
  • Organizations that build innovative infrastructures to connect those who want to donate their time with high-impact opportunities that empower them to make a real difference 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.4

Sounds great, right? So why aren’t more funders jumping at the opportunity to fund us?

No grant-maker will want to fund volunteers just for the sake of increasing volunteers. Volunteers are not an end in of themselves, they are a cost-effective strategy to assist organizations in accomplishing their missions. So, it’s up to you to paint a clear and compelling picture of what investing in the infrastructure to expand the volunteer corps will actually accomplish. At the end of the day, funders want to know the impact their investment will have on the causes they support—the tangible outcomes the volunteers will achieve towards the mission.   

When making the case for financial support of volunteer involvement, keep the following dos and don’ts in mind:

  1. DON’T approach funders with a budget to support the infrastructure of running a volunteer “program.” Infrastructure supports your organization, not your clients or cause. Focusing on the internal needs is the biggest mistake in fundraising!
  2. DO be specific about your vision, your strengths, and your needs to help you accomplish your mission.
  3. DON’T say “volunteers save us money.” In most cases, volunteers are not actually saving the organization money as the organization could not have spent funds they didn’t have. As Susan Ellis always preaches, volunteers expand the budget and extend the services of the organization. If we perpetuate the thought that volunteers save organizations money, we are also implying that, if we all had the funds we needed, volunteers would be expendable. This is not true because volunteers are more valuable than the cost involved in supporting them.
  4. DO track the outcomes of volunteer involvement. Outcomes-based evaluation focuses on tracking and measuring the difference that volunteers make in such terms as people reached, trees planted, books distributed, improved school performance by students being tutored, health screenings conducted, legislation passed, and more. Measuring outcomes in these terms really tells the story of the vital roles that volunteers play in an organization and in the community and can truly be the tipping point in garnering funder support.

Want to learn more? I encourage you to download this free resource: The Funder’s Guide to Investing in Volunteer Engagement developed by the Leighty Foundation. Nonprofits and funders alike have found The Funder’s Guide very helpful in gaining funder support. The Leighty Foundation also offers an Advice for Nonprofits section of their website that dives deeper into how to make a successful case to funders for volunteer engagement support.

What’s been your experience when seeking support for volunteer engagement?

What approach has worked for you?

How might we as a fieldwork together to engage funders in supporting our critical work?

What’s next?

In the coming months, I’ll be facilitating the official launch of the new National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement which seeks to guide and inspire collective action towards embracing volunteer engagement as a key strategy for driving positive community change. Want to learn more about it? Visit

I’ll be continuing to work with my colleague, Sheri Wilensky Burke, on developing trainings for Energize, Inc.’s Everyone Ready program. This cutting-edge online program provides 40+ in-depth seminars and self-instruction guides on all kinds of volunteer engagement topics. Learn more at   

And I’ll be working closely with each of my amazing clients who are changing the world for the better!

How to get in touch?

I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line via the Energize Contact Us form or contact me at


1 TCC Group, “’Positive Deviants’ in Volunteerism and Service: Research Summary,”  

2 Ibid

3 Fidelity Charitable, “Fidelity®Charitable Gift Fund Volunteerism and Charitable Giving in 2009 Executive Summary” 

4 Points of Light, “Where Should Nonprofits Use Volunteers? Everywhere.” 

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