Converting good intentions in to greater impact

Principle 4: Returns on Your Volunteer Investment

Principle 4: Returns on Your Volunteer Investment

By Brian Agnew, spring and summer 2014 Bank of America Service Leadership Fellow with Reimagining Service and Season Eckardt, Coordinator, Reimagining Service

Principle 4: In order to get a return, you have to invest.  Organizations that make volunteers central to their work and engage them well are able to generate as much as three to six times the community value from volunteers as the cost to manage them, according to the National Council on Aging RespectAbility Program and New York Cares. This is a smart way to maximize impact, but it requires upfront and ongoing financial investment in volunteer engagement from all sectors.

We recently surveyed Reimagining Service signatories, who support our four principles, to ask how they’re bringing Principle 4 to life; they offered examples and some recommendations. 

Returns on Investment (ROI)

“Volunteer hours” is a common metric, and hours can be interpreted as having real dollar value.  Independent Sector (IS) has published a table of estimates for how much volunteer hours are worth by state.  According to IS in 2013, each volunteer hour is valued at $22.55, a helpful starting point in demonstrating ROI. 

Taking this concept another step forward is the Community Food Bank, a nonprofit headquartered in Fresno, CA that is working to end hunger in California’s Central Valley. Until recently, the Community Food Bank embraced traditional roles for volunteers, such as sorting and distributing food, and those roles served a necessary purpose and yielded average returns.  However, through the process of becoming a certified Service Enterprise[1], the Community Food Bank team, including President and CEO Andy Souza, recognized that volunteers can also fuel the organization in other ways, boosting ROI.  This emerging point of view, coupled with expansive growth for the organization, is raising questions about the type of investment needed for the volunteer manager position. One possible idea that Andy is considering in order to expand the organization’s volunteer engagement strategy is to elevate the classification for the volunteer manager position from a staff member in the programs department to a supervisor level, although it requires additional financial resources.  It is an investment that Andy is betting will pay off. 

Let’s look further into the range of returns generated by the steadily growing number of Service Enterprise organizations.  The TCC Group conducted research, via the Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT), that examines the linkage between strong volunteer engagement practices as documented in Service Enterprises and organizational capacity.  There are a number of striking results; organizations are more adaptable, well-led, and cost effective when high quality volunteer engagement practices are in place.  For example, medium to large organizations that engage 50 volunteers a year, and operate as Service Enterprises, deliver services at the rate of $65.00 per program delivery hour, while non-Service Enterprises (those with 50, but poorly managed volunteer engagement practices) deliver services at the rate of $105.00 per program delivery hour. This 2013 finding illuminates a clear financial benefit for the organization when there has been an appropriate investment in volunteers.

How are other sectors implementing Principle 4?  The High Impact Volunteer Engagement (HIVE) program, funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, is an encouraging example of a community foundation making a financial investment in volunteer engagement, with the aim of increasing nonprofit capacity.  Ten nonprofits participated in the HIVE program and were asked to make a small, realistic change in how they leveraged skills-based volunteers. For instance, Families in Transition (FIT), an organization focusing on homelessness, brainstormed new, creative roles for volunteers and saw tremendous growth in the number of hours completed by volunteers.  The advancement of FIT’s volunteer engagement strategy is now being translated to quantifiable returns on community impact. “The impact was huge,” said Pamela Hawkes, Donor Relations Manager at Families in Transition. “When we translate that dollar figure [of volunteer contribution] into, for example, rent for those that we serve, those volunteer hours equate to housing 31 families for one year.”  It is precisely this type of impact that the Foundation was hoping for as a result of its investment.

Another example of investment from a different sector is the California Libraries, which is a state government agency with 183 local branches. For the last decade, California Libraries has been looking at ways to tap into baby boomers’ strong interest in leveraging their professional skill sets to give back to their communities. In response, California Libraries launched the Get Involved Initiative, which has offered training institutes for library staff, worked collaboratively with unions to find the right roles for volunteers, and partnered with VolunteerMatch to boost on-line volunteer recruitment and data collection.  As a result, there has been a steady increase in the number of volunteers (for every two library volunteers of five years ago, there now stand three) paired with a sustained commitment by state librarians to keep investing in the program.  The Library Programs Consultant, Carla Lehn, who leads this effort believes that public sector leaders want to see return on investment data, which is collected, and in turn, an ongoing investment is made to support and grow volunteer engagement.

As a nonprofit or a public sector agency, are you thinking about investing in volunteers?  Here’s some food for thought:

  • Identify what type of data you can collect and by whom.
  • Look for volunteer engagement models that link with ROI tools, such as the Points of Light Service Enterprise Initiative.  Recently, Feeding America San Diego became a certified Service Enterprise, and the executive director shared in a blog post that her organization’s participation in this initiative “validated their investment in volunteer engagement.”
  • Pinpoint what ROI examples best serve your organizational needs as well as what will interest your current and potential donors. If you’re a public sector agency, consider which examples will demonstrate an effective ROI that aligns appropriately with the agency’s mission.
  • Seek advice from other like-minded organizations that are knowledgeable about this methodology.
  • Share with your cross-sector partners your ROI results; it may lead to subsequent funding.

We would like to hear more from cross-sector partners – companies and funders – to learn about what value they see in documenting a ROI and their recommendations on how to get started.

[1] A Service Enterprise is an organization that fundamentally leverages volunteers and their skills to successfully deliver on its social mission. For more information, visit