state of volunteer engagement

March 2, 2023

Episode #047: The State of Volunteer Engagement with Dr. Sue Kahl and Dr. Nathan Dietz

In this week’s episode, we welcome guests Dr. Sue Carter Kahl and Dr. Nathan Dietz to discuss two fascinating new studies on the state of volunteer engagement.

These reports offer the unique perspectives and feedback of nonprofit CEOs and funders and it is enlightening to view the value of volunteer service through their eyes, especially as it relates to program funding.

The State of Volunteer Engagement – The CEO’s Perspective

Now more than ever, nonprofit CEOs and executive leadership are both recognizing the importance of, and working to create a welcoming environment for, volunteer service. This is great news for the sector!

And while volunteers are increasingly recognized for their key role in delivering core services to the local community, “volunteer services” is rarely (if ever) included on funding requests or grant proposals for which the organizations in which those volunteers serve.

The feedback from CEOs on this seeming oversight is that funders only want to cover direct services but not volunteer programs or resources.

The State of Volunteer Engagement – The Funder’s Perspective

On the flip side, funding organizations included in the study reported almost the opposite. They were more than willing to consider funding for impactful volunteer programs, but that area was almost never included on funding requests they’ve received. As a perceived low-priority item for their grant partners, funders then natural placed a lower value on funding volunteer programs as well.

Interestingly, funders indicated that they would be most willing to support volunteer efforts that engaged meaningfully with the local community or made measurable impact in the lives of program beneficiaries (which we know volunteers do every day) or included skills training for employees or upgraded technology (which almost every nonprofit would benefit from).

A Catch-22…And a Call to Action for Leaders of Volunteers

So, if nonprofit CEOs aren’t asking for funding for their volunteer programs because funders haven’t indicated that they are willing to offer it, and funders haven’t offered it because no one is asking…are we just stuck in a permanent Catch-22?

The answer – absolutely not! If you’ve been around Tobi for very long, you know her mission is to get leaders of volunteers “unstuck” and moving forward, and this is no exception. However, the ball is in the organization’s court to start recording, measuring, and reporting the needed data to quantify the impact and value of our volunteer programs (so much more than just “hours served”), and make sure our organizations are the welcoming, inclusive, and mission-driven community we (and potential funders) want them to be.

About Today’s Guests

Dr. Sue Carter Kahl has spent her professional life working and volunteering in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Her work as President of Sue Carter Kahl Consulting is infused with lessons learned as a nonprofit executive, board member, fundraiser, volunteer, and researcher.

Her current projects include consulting and training on the value that volunteers bring to organizations, translating research on volunteer impact into practitioner-friendly resources, and blogging at Volunteer Commons. Sue has a PhD in Leadership Studies and a Masters in Social Work Administration. She is committed to bridging practice and academia in the volunteer field.

Nathan Dietz, Ph.D., is an Associate Research Professor and Senior Researcher with the Do Good Institute (DGI) in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research focuses on social capital, volunteering and giving to charity, civic engagement, and social entrepreneurship.

He is the author or coauthor of several Do Good Institute publications, including a recent report on trends in civic health in the state of Maryland. He is also the principal investigator for a new project funded by the Generosity Commission on trends in civic engagement.

The State of Volunteer Engagement – Show Highlights

00:02:23 Tobi introduces her guests and shares about the important research they’ve been doing on the state of volunteer engagement.

00:08:58 Nathan, Sue, and Tobi talk about the methodology of the study, and how the research team was able gather data from such a segmented and elusive pool of respondents.

00:19:32 Tobi asks Sue and Nathan to each share their biggest takeaways from the report…with some surprising results!

00:28:45 Tobi and her guests discuss potential action steps that nonprofits can take to strengthen their volunteer programs, using the information these new reports offer.

The State of Volunteer Engagement – Quotes from the Episode

“The question we want to ask is, why is it that so many people in general feel like it’s not worth our while to engage with other people? And what can we do to turn it around? Instead of, ‘Why is it so hard for us to manage these volunteers?’ think of it as, ‘What can we do to try to make the whole experience better so that it’s easier for people to actually work together?’ “

“Even in a downturn economy, there are organizations who are raising money more than ever. So, we can’t say that’s the only reason. We have to look inside our own organizations and say, where are our skills lacking? Where is our strategy lacking? Where is our resourcing lacking? And what can we personally do to improve on these things?”

“You really need to work on your program versus in your program. You need to do all that infrastructure building, and it takes dedicated time to do that. Once you do it and you’ve put in the extra time to suss out a really solid volunteer recruitment strategy, the dividends pay off in the long run.”

“Many nonprofit CEOs are apparently operating under this assumption that there’s no point in approaching institutional funders to ask for support for volunteer engagement because the funders wouldn’t be receptive to that. But what we heard from a lot of funders is, ‘Well, we don’t know why, but people don’t ask us for funding for that.’ “

“In every organization, the single biggest problem that CEOs cite when they talk about the challenges of engaging volunteers is finding people. Finding people, period. Finding people who can work on the schedule that works for the organization. Finding people with the right skills. But finding people is the biggest problem. I don’t think funders are aware enough of that problem, but nonprofit CEOs certainly are.”

“I’m sure funders appreciate getting progress reports from nonprofits about, you know, the number of people engaged and the amount of service they provide. I’m sure they like hearing how it helps the organization, but it isn’t penetrating the way that you would expect it to. I think that there’s more work to do – maybe a different approach with adding some information to what is normally delivered to really help make funders realize just how important this whole enterprise is.”

Want More? Check out Our Time + Talent Podcast!

Whether you’re looking for solutions, inspiration, or just want to hear what others are doing to successfully engage volunteers, Time + Talent is the podcast for leaders of volunteers.

Co-hosts Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA and Jennifer Bennett, CVA bring you uplifting and insightful conversations with thought leaders and volunteer management practitioners who are redefining their roles, and the roles of volunteers.


About the Show

Nonprofit leadership author, trainer, consultant, and volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson shares weekly tips to help charities build, grow, and scale exceptional volunteer teams. Discover how your nonprofit can effectively coordinate volunteers who are reliable, equipped, and ready to help you bring about BIG change for the better.

If you’re ready to ditch the stress and harness the power of people to fuel your good work, you’re in exactly the right place!

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