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, our studies have found that they give, on average, six times more than regular major gift donors when they are substantively involved in the mission of the organization they serve.

But they 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, and that its docents are well-informed and excited about the institution.

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

Map out board improvements

Few topics are as fraught as board makeup, yet it is important to confront the challenge of—when possible—ensuring a board looks likes the constituency 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. That 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 managing the organization or is it focused on being institutional ambassadors? Once they determine its proper role, they can they determine whether changing the board’s makeup will bolster its ability to achieve that objective.

If an institution determines that it needs to initiate change—either in terms of the board’s focus or its current makeup—it needs to remember that its 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

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 philanthropists/people in the region who are engaged. Identifying those prospects takes work; the development team needs to invest time conducting research and talking to colleagues.

When the institution identifies a prospect, it needs to be upfront about its goals. For example, when I worked 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 minority philanthropists. I reached out to the mayor of Baltimore and others to gather names of people who might be interested.

Once we identified them, I sought to sell them on the institution in much the same way that I did in a solicitation. I’d say something like, “We’re interested diversifying the makeup of our board, would you be interested in helping? Of course, it is always helpful if they’re already a donor given that they are already connected in 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” giving requirements. Doing so can help institutions avoid “leaving money on the table” and establish a pattern to ensure these major gift donors and prospects are regularly contributing to the institution.

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.

Volunteer training

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 at in my career relied heavily upon well-trained and motivated volunteers and docents to help serve our mission, and positively helped our bottom line with much-needed “people power!”

Regarding philanthropy, volunteers need to know and understand that fundraising is not asking friends for gifts. It is hosting events and assisting with discovery. Beyond their gifts, they also need to share their contacts. And they need to have the willingness and desire to identify colleagues who might be interested and have the capacity to give.

That understanding stems from educational training. That’s why it is essential that institutions schedule dedicated time for training that emphasizes that “people give to people.” It should draw on examples of personal support for an organization is invaluable to the cultivation and solicitation process. That framing should help them understand the importance of leveraging and maintaining personal connections. That’s why we encourage our clients to develop training plans that help volunteers develop and practice their personal giving stories that align with the institution’s case for support materials.

Volunteers who are well-trained can also serve as valuable brand ambassadors as they can share their well-informed insights about the institution’s programs and impact and can help excite others to make donations or engage other potential volunteers. For example, at the National Aquarium, we hosted a series of board member-hosted informational breakfasts for a small group of their colleagues that served to introduce the facility to many who had never visited.  We also orchestrated a number of animal introductions, leaving the participants with a new appreciation of our programs and mission.

Volunteers can be a nonprofit institution’s most valuable commodity. But that commodity requires a significant investment in time and energy.


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 30 plus years in the voluntary sector have been focused on building organizational capacity and transforming…