Hint: it’s part nonprofit culture — and part how you see your role

There are plenty of topics in volunteer engagement that generate a lively discussion: adequate compensation, the size of our program budgets, finding a user-friendly database These are largely discussions among peers who are on the same page.

But there is one topic in our profession that triggers wildly varying reactions from our colleagues, from the sanguine to the heated debate:

That’s the question of cultivating volunteers as donors.

On one end of the spectrum, I have spoken with volunteer managers who report to development directors and see themselves as valued members of the team. For these pros, volunteering is considered an essential point of entry into an organization.  The volunteer program is fully supported and the volunteer services director sits on a leadership or decision-making team. Volunteers are appreciated and respected, relationships are developed over time.

On the other hand, there are volunteer managers who experience a de-valuing of their volunteer programs in the face of fundraising expectations. These are the organizations that talk about “converting a volunteer into a donor, as if an individual somehow mutates from one category to another. It’s tough to advocate for volunteers in an environment that feels so competitive.

The Real Question

In both of these scenarios, the question is not really about whether volunteers should be asked to give.

After all, if a volunteer truly loves your organization and supports it, why wouldn’t they want to give? – and why would we not offer them that opportunity?


The real question is about how we approach our relationships with all of the individuals who walk through our doors.

Do we put people in silos of volunteer-donor-in kind contributor, or do we create a culture that values and embraces all forms of support equally, and then builds the systems and practices to back up that philosophy?

James McAra, the CEO of the Calgary Food Bank, leads this second kind of organization.

The food bank operates with what James call the “Volunteer Involvement Model.”  It’s a model that treats volunteering as essential to the structure and the sustainability of the organization.

At the Calgary Food Bank, President & CEO James McAra treats volunteering, charitable giving, and in-kind donations as equal in value

“At the food bank “James explains,” volunteer service is just as valuable as paid service. In fact, we only hire staff when it’s proven that volunteers cannot get a task done. This approach allows us to match the skills of our volunteers with the needs of our organization, thus providing the best benefits for our community.”

“We value all contributions whether they arrive in the form of food, funds, or time. We allow the individual to determine how best to give.  Our model stresses the primary importance of the relationship instead of focusing on the type of contribution.”

The Model in Action

In practice, that the Volunteer Coordinator, Development Coordinator and Food Coordinators are all treated equally, collectively focusing on relationships but with particular specializations.

Supporters are informed of all the ways they can be involved with the food bank: by making charitable contributions, assisting with special events, organizing food drives, or establishing food distribution depots among some of the wide variety of opportunities.

For the volunteers, knowledge often occurs on site, as staff and other volunteers share engagement opportunities as a natural part of conversation.

The content of those conversations is then backed up by other communications, such as newsletters, emails, social media and further conversations.

James offered an example: “At a food drive, we’ll share a Fast Facts sheet that is shared with anyone who donates food. The sheet provides information about volunteer and giving opportunities as well as the impact of any donation type.  After the drive, each participant receives a personal thank you letter with language encouraging them to continue their engagement.”

Valuing Those with Little to Give

By treating all donations with equal value, supporters maintain their connection to the food bank – even when they have little to give.

“We don’t overlook individuals when they fall on hard times,” James continues.

We want every person who supports the Food Bank to know that their contribution is valued. For example, if a donor falls on hard times, we make sure to communicate that they are still appreciated – even if they cannot give cash.  This approach reduces the stigma around being unable to give financially. We find that many of our supporters return to giving when their circumstances improve.”   Supporters also feel valued when their type of giving changes, so no matter what their circumstances they are part of building a stronger community.  They also know that if they need help, we are there for them.

What it All Means for Leaders of Volunteers

Let’s go back to the concept of volunteer managers as specialized relationship officers, equally important as the staff that seek funds.  On the face of it, that definition flies in the face or the current push to professionalize our roles. Calling us “specialists” feels like a one-down – like a dismissal of the enormous commitment and skill that is takes to sustain a volunteer program.

If you look at the big picture, though, it’s an honor to serve as a Specialized Relationship Officer. We are the link between our communities and our mission, with an ultimate goal that goes well beyond the volunteer position.

Volunteering is essential yes, and it’s not the end of the story. When you engage a volunteer, you are inviting an individual to learn more about your cause and care as deeply as you do about solving complex problems.  Your most successful outcome is a volunteer who gives whatever way is most meaningful to them.


Volunteer managers: would you like to see this kind of shift in your organization? My Six Principles of Buy-In will help you start the conversation. Email me for the handout and worksheet, and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.  – Elisa