Who wants to know about volunteer impact? Three funders weigh in

I wondered what kind of story we tell funders about our volunteers. So I picked up the phone and asked them. Here’s what they said.

I’ve had a theory for a while now. It’s that nonprofits under-report on the impact of their volunteer programs when communicating to supporters – especially when it comes to foundations and funding requests.

And if that’s true, then — in theory — the nonprofits that report on volunteer impact must have a strategic edge over their peers.

After all, which funding proposal is more substantial?

  1. The one that touts the number of hours contributed by volunteers – or
  2. The one that demonstrates just how volunteers advance an organization’s mission

Needless to say, my preference is for option #2, and I’ve made a point to mention it whenever I offer a training on creating strategic volunteer impact measures.

But recently, as I was planning my next training, it occurred to me that perhaps it was time to verify the soundness of my speculation.  Perhaps funders don’t need these kind of measures, or perhaps they have their own way of evaluating volunteer effectiveness.

Really, who was I to speak on their behalf? It was time to go to the source and find out what foundations actually see when reading grant requests or reports.

So I did just that. I contacted three foundations here in the Washington, DC area, to understand their experience when it comes to evaluating volunteer programs.

Here are the funding experts that I spoke with:

These three foundations all support capacity-building and provide funding for general operating expenses – the kind of expenses that sustain most volunteer programs.  The Meyer and Cafritz foundations support nonprofits throughout area, while ACT for Alexandria focuses solely on its community.

Regardless of their scope, all three foundations are committed to partnering with the nonprofits they support so that in turn, the organizations can fully realize their missions.

So back to volunteers and documenting their impact.

Here’s what I discovered:

It’s true that nonprofits rarely cite strategic impact measures for their volunteers.  And it’s true that funders welcome seeing these metrics added to funding proposals.

Debbi Lindenberg works with a lot of grantees that are legal services organizations. When she reviews funding proposals, she wants to see how pro bono attorneys impact the mission. If a legal services nonprofit is staffed by two or three attorneys, and engages twelve retired attorneys to assist with litigation, she wants to know how the outcomes are impacted by the volunteer work.

For example, does the nonprofit increase its litigation caseload?  Do the retired attorneys take on more straightforward matters so the staff attorneys can take on more complex or high-impact matters? The goal is to demonstrate that volunteers are being used effectively and strategically.

Similarly, Debbi observed that nonprofits which rely almost entirely on volunteers, such as literacy councils, do an excellent job capturing and reporting volunteer data.

Overall, though, these experts rarely see proposals that include volunteer impact outcomes – or any reference to volunteers at all.

So there’s my validation.  Nonprofits are inconsistently reporting on their volunteers, rarely including volunteer strategic impact outcomes, and funders would find that information valuable.

I could wrap up this post right here and call it a day, except…

The funders I spoke with had more to say about what they seek in funding proposals, especially when it comes to the volunteer piece. Beyond the metrics, each funder shared a key piece of advice for strengthening proposals from grant-seekers.

  1. Your volunteers represent your community. Give them a voice.

According Sonia Quiñónez, the Meyer Foundation wants to see individuals with “lived experience” included in the decision-making process. That means there is a place for client input certainly, and it means that volunteers deserve to have their voices heard. The goal is to shape a nonprofit strategy that fully reflects the community it serves.

 

  1. ROI Matters – keep tracking the dollar equivalent of volunteer hours.

Don’t drop your reporting on the dollar equivalent of volunteer hours. All three funders consider this information essential for demonstrating that your organization knows how to leverage its volunteers

For Debbi Lindenberg, the dollar equivalent of volunteer time can be an essential metric for assessing the impact of pro bono attorneys. She looks favorably at organizations that have a network of volunteers that enables them to multiply the impact of every donation.  If a nonprofit operates on a budget of $1 million, and receives the equivalent of $2 million in volunteer hours, this suggests that the grant will have an exponential impact.

 

  1. Learn how to properly measure impact. Do it for your volunteers — and your entire organization.

For Heather Peeler, the need for demonstrable outcomes extends beyond the volunteer contribution. “We are looking to understand how an investment aligns with the organization’s strategy. How is the request going to deepen impact?

“We request metrics for our capacity-building grants, but they are often the weakest part of the proposal. In general, nonprofits tend to cite outputs rather than outcomes.”

As volunteer managers, may not realize that our grant writers need us. They need us in the same way that every stakeholder needs us – as educators. It’s our job to reach out to them, and show them the essential role of volunteers and how best to communicate that value. And while we’re at it, we may need to advocate for quality impact measures organization-wide.

 

 

Nonprofit leaders: want to measure volunteer impact and cultivate deeper volunteer engagement?

My Insights Report, More Money, More Impact, walks you through the systems and strategies that lead to greater volunteering and greater giving. Email me for a free copy and to join my mailing list.

 

4 Comments

  • Elisa,
    This is great information for nonprofit professionals. It’s important that nonprofit organizations know what funders are looking for, otherwise nonprofits are left in a position to throw things at a wall to see what sticks. That behavior often creates a hypersensitivity for those being on the receiving end of a solicitation for funds. It also wastes a lot of energy and resources of that organization seeking funds. In my role within corporate responsibility I often tell people that foundations do a much better job at communicating to nonprofits how they can receive funding. However, I also tell people that only really applies to foundations, not so much corporations or businesses (that don’t have an affiliation with a foundation). Many businesses that don’t have a foundation also seek to grant funding, but don’t do a good job with communicating what they look for. So, I share that just to say folks should be cautious to understand that the great information provided here won’t necessarily apply to corporations or businesses. Again, thanks for providing this information, I know nonprofit professionals will value this insight.

    • Thanks, Jerome, for adding an important perspective to the conversation. I appreciate your making the distinction between funding from foundations vs. corporations or businesses. Nonprofits need to mindful of the differences.

  • Great article Elisa. Thank you.
    I think the failure to report on volunteers contribution to strategic outcomes is due to volunteer managers being left out of the strategic planning process initially. When volunteer involvement can be planned proactively to contribute to strategic outcomes, measurement can follow. Otherwise volunteer roles can be reactive and tend to fill in the gaps – not conducive to their direct contribution to end goals.

    • Thanks, Penny! The inclusion of volunteer managers in the strategic planning process is very important. On the other hand, I work with nonprofits who have not taken that step yet, but are starting to measure volunteer impact. Sometimes just building a stronger relationship with the grant writer can lead to progress. A proposal becomes an opportunity to consider volunteer impact and how best to communicate effectiveness.

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