volunteersVolunteer Sustainability Strategies You Need To Increase Capacity

In the face of ever-growing community needs and persistent economic strains on nonprofits, volunteer sustainability isn’t just a nice thing. It’s a necessary thing.

Volunteerism is a strategic choice to use human resources to build capacity, and recent data shows it works. The Points of Light Service Enterprise Initiative research finds that organizations that leverage volunteers across all levels of their enterprise, and manage them effectively, run at nearly half the median budget.

Yet…the word still isn’t out.

In 2015, the Nonprofit Finance Fund released its annual  State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey results. The survey studies the financial health of organizations, their ability to meet community needs, whether they are measuring impact, and the steps they are taking to ensure future sustainability. Unfortunately, even in this time of high need, it appears the strategic use of volunteers may be losing ground.

Increased Demand, Decreased Ability to Serve

Nonprofits say their top challenge is ensuring long-term sustainability. It’s no wonder given these stats:

  • 76% of nonprofits reported an increase in demand for services (the seventh year in a row)
  • 50% of nonprofits consider their service a “lifeline,” up from 44% in 2009
  • The number of organizations that could not meet the demand for programs/services rose from 44% in 2009 to 52% in 2014 (the third year in a row of more than half)
  • 71% say that client needs are unmet when they can’t provide services

Financial Challenges

Fiscal challenges are common in the sector, not surprising given the nation’s slow economic recovery. Consider the following:

  • 53% had three months or less of cash on hand
  • 25% are challenged by the ability to offer competitive staff pay and/or retain staff
  • 19% struggle with raising funding that covers full costs
  • 32% list achieving long-term financial sustainability as a top challenge

The Opportunity: Volunteer Sustainability as a Human Capital Strategy

Curiously, the percentage of respondents who relied more on volunteers as a human capital strategy has decreased significantly — from 39% to 20% — over the past five years. That means that only one in five nonprofits chose to increase their volunteer engagement in order to meet critical needs and support continued sustainability. Twenty-one percent, however, say they plan to rely more on volunteers in the next 12 months.

Across the nation, the top five critical community needs were noted:

  • 35% affordable housing
  • 26% youth development (such as after-school and mentoring programs)
  • 23% job availability; 16% job training
  • 21% access to healthcare
  • 19% access to strong, well-performing schools

A compelling argument could be made for the role of volunteers in each of these five areas — for skilled, short-term, long-term, administrative, direct service, etc.
Moreover, nonprofit professionals need not worry that they will be supplanted by volunteers. In this survey, 44% of respondents reported that they hired for new positions, and only 12% reduced staff. It’s unlikely that, even during tough times, volunteers are being used to replace staff.

In addition, 17% have reduced or eliminated programs, 56% report adding services, but only 42% have increased the number of people served in an attempt to meet demand.

In the face of increasing demand and economic uncertainty, why isn’t volunteer involvement used as a key strategy? “Lifeline” services are so clearly needed and people are going without.

Isn’t it time we rethink volunteerism as a “nice to have” add-on for supporting your programs?

If you think volunteers can’t significantly build your nonprofit’s capacity to grow and thrive into the future, think again! What about integrating volunteers into your human capital strategy across all levels of your organization?

Curious about Your State or Subsector Results?

Check out the Nonprofit Sector Survey Survey Analyzer, which offers numerous ways to filter the data and look at trends.

Note: The final survey results cover an impressive 5,451 respondents (those that answered the minimum required threshold of questions). Senior leaders at 501(c) 3 organizations from all 50 states in the U.S. submitted responses.