Funding for Volunteers and Volunteer Programs

funding for volunteers

Recently I read (and attended a webinar on) a fascinating study about funding for volunteers and volunteer programs. The U.S. study, by Sue Carter Kahl, PhD. is called Investing in Strategic Volunteer Engagement. For eons I’ve been shouting from the rooftops that organizations need to invest in their volunteers and in their volunteer programs. This shows how it can be done.

The study showed that the top two reasons that organizations didn’t ask for funding for volunteers were:

  1. Other activities have more urgent need (39.8%), and
  2. Unsure how to construct a funding request for volunteer engagement (35.1%).

While I can’t help you with the first reason, this article has some tips to help you tackle the second – how to create a successful application for funding for volunteers.

Educate the donors.

One of the things I found most interesting about the study was the difference in the way the benefits volunteers provide were perceived by organizations vs funders. Here are a few examples of the percentages of respondents who thought that volunteers provided the stated benefit “to a great extent”:

Non-Profits Funders
Extend the organization’s reach 74.2% 61.8%
Allow the organization to provide services or levels of services it could not otherwise provide 78.9% 50.6%
Provide cost savings to the organization 73.9% 38.9%
Increase the organization’s return on its resource investments 68.4% 27.3%
Increase the quality of services or programs provided 72.2% 25.2%
Extend the organization’s budget 67.6% 23.1%


So, while the value of volunteers is obvious to most organizations, it’s not so obvious to donors. Making it obvious to them is our job. We need to demonstrate to funders the value of our volunteer programs. Show them the impact that volunteers provide in all aspects of our mission. How? Tell stories. Show stats. Do comparisons.

Educate yourself.

Of course, to do that, you need to know the volunteers’ impact as well. Look at your program; all your services. What would you have to stop doing, or do at a lower level or poorer quality, if you didn’t have volunteers? What increases in costs would you have? Which clients/locations would fall through the cracks? Collect all the evidence you can. The more you study the impact volunteers have on your organization, the better you can demonstrate that impact to others – including donors!

Connect the data to the donors’ goals.

What is the mission of the funding agency? If it’s to support access to housing, show stats about how many low-cost housing units your volunteer carpenters have built. If it’s to increase environmental awareness, tell stories about the rallies that volunteers in your organization have organized and lead. Etcetera. The better we can connect the data to the goals of the funding agency, the higher the chances we have of receiving funding for volunteers.

Link volunteer involvement with program cost.

Many – not all but many – donors prefer to fund “program costs” rather than “operational costs”. As volunteers and volunteer programs tend to be seen as operational, it helps if you can show how your volunteer program is actually a program cost. As volunteers are usually the ones who are most “hands-on” in delivering the programs, it should be fairly easy to show the program from that perspective.

Tailor your application to how donors prefer to fund.

Another item that came out of the study was information on how donors like to support volunteer programs. They lean toward one-time or short-term grants, ie: to upgrade your volunteer management software. Funding is often geared toward a single audience; for example, to hire a leader of volunteers, or to train staff on working with volunteers. Donors sometimes prefer to fund a single type of volunteer engagement, such as advocacy, rather than the whole suite of programs you offer. Finally, focus on one type of intervention – training, mentoring or consulting (shameless plug: I do all these!).

These aren’t hard and fast rules; different funders have different preferences. The point is to find out what they are, and design your application to them.

Address donors’ concerns.

Funding agencies that responded to the study indicated a few areas of concern around funding volunteers. The key ones were: volunteer commitment, organizational capacity to engage volunteers effectively, and the return on investment of involving volunteers. Provide the donor with stories and stats that will alleviate those concerns.

Finally, be aware that donors will provide funding for volunteers.

If the grant application demonstrates the importance of volunteers to your mission and to the funders’ goals, if their concerns are addressed, and if you can clearly show the return on investment, you will have an excellent chance of success. Another thing that came out of the study was that most organizations never even ask for funding for their volunteer programs.

I recommend that you do. You will, I suspect, be pleasantly surprised!

I also suggest you download and read the study here; it’s full of amazing insights!

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