Converting good intentions in to greater impact

Volunteer Energy: A Renewable Resource

Volunteer Energy: A Renewable Resource

By Jane Leighty Justis, The Leighty Foundation and Reimagining Service Council Member

On Feburary 4, 2013, this article was originally posted on the Association of Small Foundation (ASF)’s PhilanthroFiles blog. In her previous post on PhilanthroFiles, ASF member Jane Leighty Justis made the case for investing in volunteer infrastructure. Here she shares her foundation’s efforts to increase the capacity of its local nonprofits to use volunteers.

We are faced with new realities. Our world continues to move deeper into economic instability, and needs are increasing exponentially. The time has come to support and strengthen volunteer engagement, which has proven to be a high impact, renewable asset if mobilized and used effectively.

As funders, we have the opportunity to support our grantees’ capacity to reimagine how they can unleash this natural renewable resource to accomplish their missions, strengthen their communities, and increase the return on our investments.

At The Leighty Foundation, our actions changed from granting capacity building dollars to individual organizations to supporting an initiative that would involve many organizations. Our goal: to build the capacity of our community to engage its citizens.

Our key actions and outcomes include:

  • Assessing perceived needs, obstacles, and desires around volunteer engagement. We began by listening. We convened focus groups of executive directors—the culture-builders of their organizations—and listened to their visions and challenges in using volunteers. Each discussion built enthusiasm and momentum, and the executive directors requested training for teams including the executive director, a volunteer manager, and a board member.
  • Involving other community resources as partners. Since we are a small-staffed foundation, we partnered with our United Way Volunteer Center and Center for Nonprofit Excellence to enhance organizational follow-up and support. The Leighty Foundation gave these partners a collaborative grant to plan a symposium to train organizational teams in effective volunteer engagement.
  • Offering a volunteer engagement symposium for organizational teams. Attending the event were 27 organizations, all whose executives were involved in the focus groups. Betty Stallings, a noted national author/trainer in volunteerism, led the daylong symposium. Each team was given an opportunity to assess its current capacity and begin to develop a strategic plan for improving its volunteer engagement.
  • Investing long term in support of cultural change. Our foundation invited attendee organizations to apply for Volunteer Impact Grants. These small grants ($1500-$4000) were offered as an incentive to carry out the plans developed at the symposium, and, depending on the impact grantees show in the first year, they will be offered for up to 2 more years.
  • Supporting ongoing training. Follow-up training was offered to respond to the biggest identified challenge: building staff support throughout an organization. In 2013, we, in collaboration with the Volunteer Center and the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, will convene bimonthly brown bag conversations to help sustain the momentum.

We consider this initiative a work in progress, and we are inspired by our early results after nearly 2 years. The commitment to enhancing volunteer engagement in our community is beginning to take root in many organizations. Several board members, executives, and volunteer engagement professionals have agreed to jointly share their stories—both successes and challenges—at local conferences and training events, and mentor other leaders.

I would like to continue this conversation with any who have questions or are involved in this work. You can contact me at

Related resources

Jane JustisASF member Jane Leighty Justis is a trustee and the executive director of The Leighty Foundation, founded in Waterloo, IA, by her father in 1985. Jane is active in the promotion of philanthropy through leadership roles with ASF, the Council on Foundations, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, the Colorado Association of Funders, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, and others. Jane has a degree in education from the University of Denver, a certification in volunteer management from the University of Colorado, and a master’s degree in Christian leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary.