How volunteers can help nonprofit institutions thrive

Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofit institutions. They are often some of our most trusted advisors, our most important ambassadors to the broader community, our best docents, and our most significant donors. In fact, GG+A studies have found that deeply engaged volunteers, on average, give six times more than non-engaged major gift donors.

But volunteers can only serve those important functions if institutions invest in them. That means devoting time and energy to ensure the institution has representational boards, that its volunteers are well-trained in fundraising, that its docents are well-informed and excited about the institution, and that they’re effectively managed and enabled to contribute substantively.

To help navigate some of the key challenges institutions often encounter leveraging volunteers, I’ve defined below several strategies below that I—and my colleagues—have recommended to our clients.

Consider your board’s mission and composition

Few topics are as fraught as board composition, yet it is important to confront the challenge of ensuring a board reflects the constituency of the organization it serves.

For example, one community college I have worked with recognized that it needed its boards to look more like the students who attend its three campuses in terms of race, gender, and geography. That recognition drove it to reflect on its board governance and nominating processes to ensure that it didn’t have structural impediments standing in its way.

That example demonstrates the need for thoughtful analysis and reflection of whether a board is achieving its objective. The assessment starts, not surprisingly, by determining the board’s objective. Is the board an operating board or a support board? In other words, does the board play a primary role of governance or is it focused on serving as institutional ambassadors? Should the board’s mission be redefined to best serve the institution and the community in a contemporary context? Once the proper role is clarified, the optimal composition of the board comes into clearer focus.

If an institution determines that it needs to initiate change—either in terms of the board’s focus or its current membership—it’s essential to remember that current board members were recruited under different expectations. That recognition and understanding should underlie clear and direct conversations with board members about any changes to their roles.

Board recruitment begins with 100% transparency

Once an institution makes the decision to initiate change, it can work with a nominating committee to build a list of potential board members based on their background and philanthropic history. This is an area where the development office can produce a list of prospective candidates based on who are up-and-coming volunteers and philanthropists in the region. Identifying those prospects takes work; the development team needs to invest time conducting research and talking to colleagues.

The institution must be upfront about its goals when it approaches a new prospective board member. For example, when I started as Executive Director in 2005 at Washington, D.C.’s National Aquarium, my team and I realized that we needed more diversity to better reflect the makeup of our constituents. That set us on a path to identify underrepresented philanthropists, as well as business and community leaders. For example, I reached out to the Mayor of Baltimore and officials in the District of Columbia to gather names of people who might be interested.

Once we identified potential board members, I sought to sell them on the institution in much the same way that I did in a solicitation. I’d begin by saying something like, “Our primary constituents are the people of greater Baltimore, but our board doesn’t reflect that reality. We’re interested in diversifying the composition of our board, would you be interested in helping?” Of course, it is always helpful if they’re already a donor and connected with the institution and its mission.

At the same time, it’s important to frankly address the institution’s annual support expectations, as well as to institute annual discussions around the topic. After all, many boards have minimum “give or get” philanthropy requirements. Being clear from the start of a relationship with a board member can help ensure transparent expectations.

In some ways, the pandemic has made the recruitment process easier as board members (and everyone else) have grown increasingly comfortable with remote meetings, which has reduced the need for board-related travel. This new operating principle opens up possibilities for busy civic leaders and those who are connected but live further away from the institution.

Building a volunteer cohort: training to empower and engage

While volunteers care deeply for our institutions and can help with steps such as discovery and solicitations, their ability to help is often directly tied to the level of information that they possess.  Certainly, a number of institutions I have worked with relied heavily upon well-trained and motivated volunteers and docents to help serve their mission and positively help their bottom line.

Volunteers need to understand that fundraising is not asking friends for gifts. It is helping to develop the right strategic approaches, hosting events, and assisting with discovery. Beyond making their own gifts, they also need to share their contacts and help to bring them into the institution. And they need to have the willingness and desire to identify colleagues who might be interested and have the capacity to give.

All of this critical assistance begins with education and training. It is essential that institutions schedule dedicated time for training that emphasizes that “people give to people.” Training should draw on examples of how volunteer engagement is invaluable to the cultivation and solicitation process. That framing should help them understand the importance of leveraging and maintaining personal connections. We encourage our clients to create training plans that help volunteers develop and practice their personal giving stories that align with the institution’s case for support.

Volunteers who are well-trained can serve as valuable brand ambassadors by sharing their well-informed insights about the institution’s programs and impact. For example, at the National Aquarium, we hosted a series of board member-hosted informational breakfasts for a small group of their colleagues and friends that introduced the facility to many influential people who had never visited. We also orchestrated a number of animal encounters, leaving the participants with a new appreciation of our programs and mission. Who can say no to an engaging Giant Pacific Octopus?

Managing volunteers to engage and leverage skills

There’s no question that managing volunteers—especially those who do not serve on your boards—can be challenging. After all, volunteers are “unpaid staff” who provide a valuable resource: their time. And in many organizations, they provide essential interactions with donors and the general public.

As is the case with any valuable resource, volunteers need to be managed. Institutions need to have designated staff in place who ensure that volunteers are doing meaningful, effective work and that the impact of their effort is being measured.

I encourage my clients to recognize the significant role that volunteers play by keeping track of their volunteer hours. Tracking time and tasks enables them to equate volunteer hours to their bottom line by determining how those dedicated hours translate to expenses and full-time equivalents. By tracking volunteer hours, they can recognize and honor volunteers in specific, meaningful ways for their service on an annual basis.

Of course, the quantity of hours worked doesn’t factor in important elements that contribute to volunteers’ value to the organization. For example, by volunteering, an individual is likely building deeper ties to the organization and he or she may also be helping that organization build relationships with others. Because volunteers represent a wide representation of career backgrounds and diversity, they can speak to the institution’s needs in a way that a paid fundraiser cannot. Precisely because they are not paid staff members, their voice is particularly powerful.

Throughout my career, I’ve found that effective volunteer management helps ensure that volunteers feel engaged and valued. That’s important because volunteers are an institution’s best prospects for annual, capital and planned giving. Given their relationship with the institution, they often designate gifts to particular passion projects.

Because volunteers are more likely than other donors to make bequests to the institution, I have found success offering customized estate-planning workshops that are exclusively oriented to volunteers. This approach makes them feel part of the institutional family and shows them how support through their estates can be meaningful to the institution where they dedicated so many hours.  When I was CEO at the Washington Animal Rescue League, a former volunteer informed me that she “didn’t realize that we were in the bequest business,” and informed me that she updated her will accordingly!

Without question, effectively used volunteers and volunteer boards provide immeasurable strength for nonprofits. No single formula exists to develop the right solutions. I’d love to talk with you about innovative strategies for your institution.


If you need assistance developing a strategy to better leverage volunteers, you can contact Bob at rramin@grenzglier.com.


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About the author

Bob Ramin

Senior Vice President

Bob Ramin, Senior Vice President, has spent his career directing and developing institutions on behalf of animal welfare, combining his breadth of fundraising and philanthropic knowledge with his passion for wildlife conservation efforts. Bob’s more than 30 years in the voluntary sector have been focused on building organizational capacity and…