We Get Out of Volunteer Engagement What We Put Into It

Sprinkler watering grassy field surrounded by leafy trees
Photo credit: runawayfromzombies on Pixabay

“Organizations that invest in volunteer management capacity are more likely to attain high net benefits”. That was one of the conclusions that researchers Mark Hager and Jeff Brudney made in a 2004 study1,2 of volunteer management in nonprofits. That conclusion held true when they revisited some of those nonprofits in 20193.

It sounds pretty basic, right? We get out of volunteerism what we put into it. And yet, many organizations struggle to invest in volunteer engagement.

Their findings came to mind as I contemplated data from a recent study I helped conduct about how funders think about investing in volunteer engagement4,5. We asked funders from 27 philanthropic organizations about why they do (or might) invest in volunteer engagement. We also asked why they do not.

Why Funders Do Invest in Volunteer Engagement

The funders offered a whole host of reasons for why they do or would invest in volunteer engagement.

Venn diagram of community, agency, and funder reasons to invest in volunteer engagement

The grantmakers said they invested in volunteer engagement because it helped:

  • equip community members to take action,
  • strengthen agencies’ capacity to meets their missions, and/or
  • advance the goals of agencies and funders.

For example, one foundation’s mission was to serve kids. The prior executive was introduced to Service Enterprise (a process that supports organizations in deepening their volunteer engagement) and wanted to support local nonprofit participation in it to build their volunteer infrastructure. Doing so “made everything stronger” for those agencies, according to the current executive director. It contributed to the nonprofits’ ability to involve volunteers. Through that volunteer support, the nonprofit was able to serve more kids. As a result, the foundation could meet its own mission to serve kids.

Why Funders Don’t Invest in Volunteer Engagement

The grantmakers also shared many concerns about investing in volunteer engagement.6

Venn diagram of community, agency, and funder reasons not to invest in volunteer engagement

The funders said that they (or others) don’t invest in volunteer engagement because:

  • volunteers may not be a reliable, high-quality workforce,
  • agencies didn’t have the capacity to engage volunteers well, and/or
  • there was a preference for funding programs or clients instead of operations (which is where most grantmakers placed the volunteer function) and an uncertain return on investment.

A program director at one foundation worried that because volunteers do not receive a paycheck, it is harder to trust them to stay. She also observed that so many nonprofits are in survival mode that they don’t have the time to think creatively about involving volunteers. Engaging them ends up just looking like more work. It left her wondering if volunteer engagement was perceived to be worth it for the agency and prospective funders.

Volunteer Engagement: Vital Function or Risky Endeavor?

These insights were helpful to hear, but there was something missing that I could not quite articulate. That is, until I looked at the Venn diagrams next to each other.

Which diagram was true?

  • Volunteer engagement equips the community to advocate for and support each other? Or community volunteers cannot be fully trusted because they might not stick around or deliver results?
  • Involving volunteers builds the capacity of agencies? Or agencies don’t have sufficient capacity to engage the community well in the first place?
  • Volunteers support agency – and by extension, funder –goals? Or volunteers don’t contribute to program and client outcomes? Or we can’t be sure that volunteer engagement investments are wise?

In other words, were volunteers an essential part of nonprofits that supported the community, the agency, and funder interests? Or were they a flaky drain on agency resources and a risky investment for funders?

Of course, both can be and are true. Engaging the community as volunteers is more complex than a simple binary suggests. However, it seems noteworthy that the outcomes of volunteer engagement can vary so wildly.

Some of the funders remarked on this variation. They pointed out that agencies needed to create the conditions for volunteers and volunteer engagement to be successful. They said that volunteer engagement needs to be “intentional” and “strategic”. It requires an investment of time, money, and expertise to “make volunteerism pay off for the organization.”

You Can’t Get a Positive Return on Investment Without the Investment

Which brought me back to the Hager and Brudney findings. Like most things in life, we get out of experiences and communities what we put into them. Or to borrow another truism: the grass is greener where we water it.

Yet, there’s this enduring hope that engaging volunteers won’t or shouldn’t take much time. We seem to want a positive return on investment without making the investment. Unfortunately, that omission may well yield returns—but of the sort we don’t want: poor recruitment and retention7, volunteer experiences that are only welcoming to a particular demographic8, harmful interactions between volunteers and the community9, volunteers looking nice but not necessary10.

Perhaps it is time to have a more honest conversation about volunteerism. Engaging the community as volunteer partners in nonprofit work does and should take time—just like anything else we want to be successful. The work of community needs the investment and full participation of the community: by funders, by boards and executives, by leaders of volunteers, and of course, by community volunteers themselves. Our missions, which are bigger than paid staff alone can achieve, deserve it.


1 Hager, M.A. & Brudney, J. L. (2004). Balancing act: The challenges and benefits of volunteers.

2 Urban Institute. (2004). Volunteer management capacity in America’s charities and congregations: A briefing report. (p. 15)

3 Hager, M.A. & Brudney, J.L. (2021). Volunteer management capacity in America’s charities: Benchmarking a pre-pandemic field and assessing future directions. (p. 18)

4 The definition of volunteer engagement was intentionally broad and included (but was not limited to) traditional and skilled volunteering, community organizing, civic or community engagement, and service learning.

5 Carter Kahl, S. (2023). Investing in strategic volunteer engagement: A qualitative study.

6 Interestingly, a few of the funders were almost apologetic when pointing out these reasons. They prefaced their responses by saying they didn’t want to be “cynical,” “skeptical,” or “pessimistic.”

7 Dietz, N. & Grimm Jr., R. T. (2023). The state of volunteer engagement: Insights from nonprofit leaders and funders. Do Good Institute, University of Maryland.

8 Carter Kahl, S. (2022). Using tension well: From comfort to hospitality.

9 Carter Kahl, S. (2022). Reckoning with the shadow side of volunteerism.

10 Eisner, D., Grimm Jr., R. T., Maynard, S., & Washburn, S. (2009). The new volunteer workforce. Stanford Social Innovation Review

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