Finding funding for volunteers and volunteer programs

The cost of volunteers

Recently I read, and participated in a webinar about, a fascinating study about funding for volunteers and volunteer programs.

The U.S. study, by Sue Carter Kahl, is called Investing in Strategic Volunteer Engagement. For eons I’ve been shouting from the rooftops that organizations need to invest in their volunteers and in their volunteer programs. The study shows how it can be done.

It showed the top two reasons organizations don’t ask for funding for volunteers are:

1. Other activities have more urgent need (39.8%)

2. They are unsure how to construct a funding request for volunteer engagement (35.1%).

While I can’t help you with the first reason, I do have some tips to help tackle the second – how to create a successful application for funding for volunteers.

Educate the donors

One of the things I found most interesting about the study was the difference in the way the benefits volunteers provide were perceived by organizations vs funders. Here are a few examples of the percentages of respondents who thought that volunteers provided the stated benefit “to a great extent”:

So, while the value of volunteers is obvious to most organizations, it’s not so obvious to donors. Making it obvious to them is our job. We need to demonstrate to funders the value of our volunteer programs. Show them the impact that volunteers provide in all aspects of our mission. How? Tell stories. Show stats. Do comparisons.

Educate yourself

Of course, to do that, you need to know the volunteers’ impact as well. Look at your program; all your services. What would you have to stop doing, or do at a lower level or poorer quality, if you didn’t have volunteers? What increases in costs would you have? What clients/locations would fall through the cracks? Collect all the evidence you can. The more you study the impact volunteers have on your organization, the better you can demonstrate that impact to others – including donors.

Connect the data to the donors’ goals

What is the mission of the funding agency? If it’s to support access to housing, show stats about how many low-cost housing units your volunteer carpenters have built. If it’s to increase environmental awareness, tell stories about the rallies that volunteers in your organization have organized and lead. Etcetera. The better we can connect the data to the goals of the funding agency, the higher the chances we have of receiving funding for volunteers.

Link volunteer involvement with program cost

Many – not all but many – donors prefer to fund “program costs” rather than “operational costs”. As volunteers and volunteer programs tend to be seen as operational, it helps if you can show how your volunteer program is actually a program cost. As volunteers are usually the ones who are most “hands-on” in delivering the programs, it should be fairly easy to show the program from that perspective.

Tailor your application to how donors prefer to fund

Another item that came out of the study was information on how donors like to support volunteer programs. They lean toward one-time, or short-term grants, ie: to upgrade volunteer management software. Funding is often geared toward a single audience.

For example, to hire a leader of volunteers, or to train staff on working with volunteers. Donors sometimes prefer to fund a single type of volunteer engagement, such as advocacy, rather than the whole suite of programs you offer. Finally, focus on one type of intervention – training, mentoring or consulting.

These aren’t hard and fast rules. Different funders have different preferences. The point is to find out what they are, and design your application to them.

Address donors’ concerns

Funding agencies that responded to the study indicated a few areas of concern around funding volunteers. The key ones were: volunteer commitment, organizational capacity to engage volunteers effectively, and the return on investment of involving volunteers. Provide the donor with stories and stats that will alleviate those concerns.

Finally, be aware that donors will provide funding for volunteers.

If the grant application demonstrates the importance of volunteers to your mission and to the funders’ goals, if their concerns are addressed, and if you can clearly show the return on investment, you will have an excellent chance of success. Another thing that came out of the study was that most organizations never even ask for funding for their volunteer programs.

I recommend that you do. I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised.

I also recommend you download and read the study. It’s full of amazing insights.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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