Investing in Strategic Volunteer Engagement – A Qualitative Study


Date of Publication: 2022
Author: Sue Carter Kahl, PhD
Published by: The Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement 

Volunteerism is a core element of society and the non-profit workforce in the US. It is assumed to be a positive activity offering benefits to non-profits, volunteers, and the community. Yet, raising or justifying funding to support the engagement of volunteers has been a challenge for many volunteer involving organisations (VIOs). This study explored what stops charitable foundations and funding organisations from investing in volunteer engagement, the kind of evidence that would encourage funders to invest, and the evidence they might need from grant partners to measure volunteer engagement. It highlights the need for VIOs to be able to articulate how engaging volunteers will help them to achieve their missions.  

This qualitative study included focus groups and interviews. The participants were chief executives or presidents, directors, program officers, and lead staff.  

Findings indicated that: 

  • Funders who invest in volunteer engagement do so because it helped to equip community volunteers, strengthen non-profit capacity, and promote their own goals as a funder. 
  • Funders worry, however, about volunteer accountability, commitment, agency capacity to engage and manage volunteers well, and question the return-on-investment of involving volunteers.  
  • In addition, some funders prefer giving to programs rather than operations, and did not understand the importance of strong operations to successful program outcomes, nor the importance of unpaid workers in supporting programs  
  • Funders asked for little data about their impact. The most common data tracked were volunteer hours and numbers, which several funders noted had limited use without context for what those numbers mean 
  • Showing the benefit of engaging volunteers in other ways, eg in the ripple effects out into the community, the critical role of volunteers, would add weight to the case for funding.  

Recommendations for funders: 

  • Gain clarity on what is meant by volunteer engagement  
  • Ask about volunteer impact  
  • Fund holistically 
  • Engage directly on the issues and concerns 

Strategic volunteer engagement offers tremendous opportunities and daunting barriers. This study offers insight into how to manage the tension between the two. 

The full report is available from the Strategic Volunteer Engagement website.