Funding volunteer engagement

I’m going to let you in on a consulting secret. Sometimes it’s easy to spot what attitude an organisation has towards volunteers. There are three main tells.

First, if they talk about ‘using’ volunteers. That’s a dead give-away – volunteers aren’t seen as part of the team but a resource to be used and disposed of (you can read more about this in an article I wrote back in 2011).

Second, senior managers make all the right noises about volunteering, but their walk doesn’t match their talk. For example, rarely do I see Directors leading the way and involving volunteers in their work (and the board doesn’t count here, senior managers are required to work with trustees!). It’s almost as if one benefit of being promoted beyond a certain level is that you don’t have to work with volunteers anymore!

Third, how the organisation funds volunteering says a lot about the strategic importance the subject is given. If money for volunteer expenses, Volunteer Manager salary (stop sniggering in the back!), recruitment and marketing budget etc. are all sourced externally rather than internally, it suggests that the strategic commitment is pretty low. Funds may be tight, but if money can be found from core budgets for other work, just not volunteer engagement, then it’s pretty clear that volunteering is at the back of the priority queue.

Volunteers are a great way of extending the budget, doing more than we could otherwise achieve on our limited financial resources. But volunteer involvement needs investment if the benefits are to be realised – for the client, the organisation and the volunteer. As we used to say at Volunteering England, “Volunteering is freely given but not cost free”.

The first action of any organisation that is truly serious about volunteering is to put its money where its mouth is and invest its own financial resources. How to do this and where to prioritise the spending is something Susan J Ellis and I cover in chapter three of our book, “From The Top Down – The UK Edition”.

Of course, not every organisation has sufficient funds to invest as fully as it would like in volunteering. A charity with a £75 million turnover has more capacity to invest in its volunteer resources than a non-profit with much smaller turnover who might be able to fund expenses for volunteers, but not a volunteer manager.

Yet there are very few funding opportunities available to directly support volunteer engagement. The pots of money available are typically: tied to the delivery of other priorities; measured on how many volunteers are recruited and how many hours they work (not great measures, as I outline in this 2015 article); and focused on new work only, with support for tried and tested approaches excluded.

As IPPR put it so well in their 2018 report “The Value of Volunteering in the North” (link opens PDF file):

“Many funders, particularly charitable funders, can sometimes talk of wishing to fund transformational change in communities (that is, they want to see a radical difference in communities as a result of their funding). This is laudable but sometimes it is a question of learning to value what is there now and learning how to support its continuation. These worthy pursuits may not look very enticing to funders. They cannot promise to produce newsworthy ‘rags-to-riches’ outcomes that will secure column inches in the local paper or on the radio. But given the role that small groups of dedicated volunteers play in a thriving civil society and a healthy community – then it is arguably money well spent.”

My core argument is that we need to see change in how volunteer engagement is funded. First, funding from organisational core budgets. Second, from external funders.

We need more senior managers taking volunteering seriously as a strategic priority and investing core funds in its development, just as they would invest in fundraising.

We need a stronger business case for volunteering, demonstrating how a modest investment can reap significant rewards.

We need better measures of success, enabling us to demonstrate the impacts of volunteering, going beyond bums on seats and hours given.

We need more fundraisers who understand the value of volunteering and make a case for financial support when they write bids, rather than simply prioritising overheads and staff costs.

We need funders who understand and invest in enabling volunteers to change lives and fulfil missions.

How is they going to happen? In truth, slowly and with considerable effort.

Leaders and managers of volunteers cannot wait around for funders, sector leaders and colleagues to become enlightened. We are going to have to work to create the opportunities, do the influencing, develop the measures and create a better funding culture to support volunteering.

We need to be at funder events and conferences making our case. We need to be lobbying our senior teams and boards more effectively. We need to be reaching out to our fundraising colleagues. We need to be getting smarter about impact measurement and building a business case for investment.

It’s a big challenge and one we may not always have focused on in the past, especially when it comes to working with funders. But it’s an important challenge and one I think we need to rise to.

With a new financial year coming soon (in the UK at least) now is as good a time as any to start.

Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd run training on measuring volunteering and how to communicate the value of volunteers to others. If you’d like to speak with us about this, or any other support we might provide, please get in touch.

For practical resources and tips into funding volunteer engagement please see:

If you have comments on this article or additional resources to share on this issue, please contribute in the comments below. Thank you!

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