The most common topic of discussion in meetings lately and the theme of many sessions during this unusual fall conference season is the need to advocate for volunteer engagement as a strategy to help sustain organizations during these challenging times. While organizations are facing challenges of unparalleled magnitude (early on in the pandemic, the Wall Street Journal reported donations to some nonprofits fell as much as 75 percent and The Nonprofit Times reported that only a third of nonprofits were confident they could sustain operations for as long as needed), we also know that interest in volunteering has increased amid the pandemic and that volunteer talent and energy is a vital resource to sustain organizations and ensure mission-delivery no matter what else 2020 throws at us!

Just this week, Points of Light released its Civic Life Today: A look at American Civic Engagement Amid a Global Pandemic report, which states that:

Prior to the pandemic, voting and donations to nonprofits were the primary ways people participated in civic life. Today, people believe civic action is more important than ever before.

In fact, while 36% of individuals participated in volunteer activities in the past year, according to Points of Light’s report, 73% now believe that volunteering will be more important than ever after the Coronavirus. The only way to ensure a pathway for that energy towards our mission-fulfillment is to have credible nonprofit organizations that offer meaningful opportunities to engage.

Yet, too often, we continue to hear about engagement professionals on furlough, others strategizing how to defend their department budget, or – worse yet – many others having been laid off. Clearly, our need to advocate for volunteer engagement is more vital than ever. So, here are a few tips and research highlights to consider as you make the case for engagement as a strategy to sustain your organization moving forward.

  1. Know the Research

Back in 2009, early research from the Reimagining Service coalition (and which became the basis of today’s Service Enterprise initiative) showed that organizations that engage volunteers and do it well are significantly more adaptable, sustainable, and capable of going to scale than others. Could there ever be a time when our organizations need to be more adaptable than now? Or more able to scale when we see that three-quarters of nonprofits report an increase in demand for the services?

Additionally, engaging volunteers is a strategy that increases resources – even financial ones. Not only do volunteers build capacity through their people power, skills, and networks, but volunteers are more likely to make charitable donations and, among high net worth donors, 84% give to all, most, or some of the organizations where they volunteer.

During times of crisis, Americans roll up their sleeves and volunteer. They did after 9/11, during the financial crisis in 2009, after local disasters, and they are doing so again. As noted in Points of Light’s Civic Life report, “while the pandemic has intensified the strain on nonprofits, it has inspired individuals to get involved,” and nonprofits are seeing increases in interest by new volunteers. In fact, 85% of nonprofits report increases in volunteer interest and 95% of individuals report that they will be at least as involved or do more to support their community once the pandemic passes.

2. Know your own Engagement and Impact

Being able to articulate and quantify how your organization engaged volunteers prior to the pandemic and since the outbreak is equally important to understanding the trends across the sector. Where were your strengths? Where did you have opportunities for different or more strategic engagement? How have you pivoted? How have or could volunteers be helping your organization adapt its mission-delivery and response to increased demand or different demands? For example, even museums that have had to shutter their doors have found ways to engage volunteers in new ways – for example by having volunteers work virtually to review and “tag” photos in the digital archives so researchers and others can more easily search the collections.

Track and share the impact that volunteers had prior to the pandemic – and innovate new ways to track impact now. Hours alone won’t cut it. How are volunteers serving as ambassadors for your mission even as services evolve? How many clients are they reaching, even if virtually? How many have participated in virtual training to enhance skills and maintain readiness for when doors reopen? Are new volunteers approaching the organization to serve and, if so, what is attracting them and what skills are they offering?

Only by tracking your engagement and volunteer impact can you make the case to engage volunteers as partners in sustaining your organization moving forward.

3. Make the Case

Once you have a few compelling pieces of research and your own organizational assessment and story of impact, the responsibility – and opportunity – to share it is on your shoulders. Develop a case statement. Prepare a presentation. Share strategic communications with leadership, with the community, with funders, and, of course, with volunteers. For tips on making the case, check out this guide from The Leighty Foundation. While the guide is designed to help make the case to funders, the techniques apply equally to leadership.

Finally, to truly advocate for volunteer engagement as a core strategy for organizational sustainability, leaders of volunteers must embrace their roles as … well…. leaders. More on that in our next blog. So, stay tuned. But, in the meantime, build your case and share it widely. Then , next week, check back in for information on how to be an effective leader into the post-COVID recovery.