Volunteer Engagement: The Cornerstone of a Healthy Democracy

This is a guest post by Jane Leighty Justis, President of The Leighty Foundation.

Credit: Val Vesa

At the heart of civic engagement and a thriving democracy are the volunteers! Social movements across our nation are building momentum, and at the center of those movements are individuals donating their most precious resource — their time — to causes they believe in.

Our country faces daunting challenges, and a spectrum of mission-driven organizations are poised to tackle them. But increasing competition for funding coupled with dramatically escalating needs can be daunting, and often impedes their progress. This reality makes volunteer human capital an especially valuable resource — with the potential to enhance or impede an organization’s mission. Millions of people in communities nationwide have the energy and desire to volunteer, but most organizations lack the necessary support and direction to fully integrate and empower this renewable resource effectively.

For 20 years, prior to the creation to our family foundation, I served as both a practitioner and national trainer in the field of volunteer engagement. I saw firsthand the effect well-placed and equipped volunteers had on many organizations. I also witnessed how poorly managed organizations missed out on experiencing the game-changing potential of empowered human capital to help them accomplish their critical missions. How well an organization engaged their volunteer workforce was indeed a bellwether for its overall health.

Capacity building in volunteer engagement had been a cornerstone of our foundation’s work, and we have witnessed the power it has to transform organizations and communities. In 2011, we partnered with local stakeholders to create the Pikes Peak Volunteer Engagement Initiative, which seeks to shift the paradigm of nonprofit volunteer engagement in Colorado Springs, CO. The Leighty Foundation convened and connected board and executive leaders, staff members and volunteers to identify needs and issues, fostering peer exchange and learnings through a community-wide symposium on volunteer engagement, seminars and reflection gatherings. We then invested even more deeply in local organizations that demonstrated readiness to take their engagement practices to a new level by providing Volunteer Impact Grants, in-depth training and support. This work now continues through the Colorado Nonprofit Association of the Pikes Peak Region.

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The infusion of volunteer human capital — and the support structure to manage it — was transformative. Community organizations overwhelmingly reported a meaningful shift in their outlooks and their outcomes. One reported that they had transformed from a “mom and pop nonprofit” to a sustainable business model. Another saw an increase of thousands of pounds of food distributed by a local food pantry through restructuring and adding supervisory volunteers. And yet another created a donated clothing store for students in foster homes. These initiatives would not have been possible without the innovation and creative energy of volunteer leadership.

Volunteer engagement can spark similar transformations in organizations across the nation, but shifting paradigms within the philanthropic community will be necessary for this to happen. We, as funders, must recognize that volunteer engagement is not a program in and of itself, but rather a cost-effective strategy to assist all organizations and community groups in accomplishing their missions. Organizations need our support to create cultures and infrastructures which cultivate, develop, and empower their volunteers. This is the focus of our work and it has provided a tremendous return on our investment. Recent research is supporting our approach:

  • Organizations that fundamentally leverage volunteers and their skills to accomplish their missions are significantly more adaptable, sustainable, and capable of going to scale.
  • Organizations that engage volunteers are equally as effective as their peers without volunteers — many at almost half the median budget.
  • A majority of high-net worth donors who volunteer give ten times more money than non-volunteers — and most donate to the organizations in which they are involved.
  • Successful volunteer engagement is not as simple as increasing the number of volunteers in an organization. Effectively tapping volunteer resources requires building innovative organizational infrastructures to connect those who want to donate their time with high-impact opportunities that empower them to make a real difference. Results of this approach have been shown in some cases to reap up to a $6 return on every dollar invested when considering the financial value of volunteer involvement.

As funders, we need to seize this unique opportunity to ensure a thriving democracy by building organizational capacity to sustain and promote more effective volunteer involvement. The heartbeat of democracy will always be active, engaged citizens. Our support is needed now more than ever.

Here are four actions YOU can take to help make this goal a reality:

1. Facilitate or convene dialogue with other grant makers and nonprofits in the community on volunteer engagement strategies and best practices. Explore how you might enhance the volunteer engagement strategies of your grantees.

2. Ask for feedback regarding volunteer engagement successes and challenges during your site visits and in your grant application and evaluation forms.

3. Encourage grantees to include a budget line item to fund a volunteer engagement professional, volunteer resources management technology and software, and training and coaching for staff on volunteer engagement.

4. Support executive leadership and boards in creating a strong volunteer engagement culture. Provide scholarships for professional development, training, and networking opportunities for executive directors, director of volunteer engagement, and other organizational staff and volunteer leaders.

The “Volunteer Engagement” section of our website has valuable resources for funders and grantees. Download a free copy of our new publication: The Funder’s Guide to Investing in Volunteer Engagement or to receive print copies free of charge, please contact Jill Haubert at jill@leightyfoundation.org with your mailing address and number of copies you would like. Nonprofits and funders alike have found The Funder’s Guide very helpful in gaining funder support. We encourage you to use this as the foundation for conversation with your grantees.

This ground-breaking resource gives funders and nonprofit organizations common data and common language to jointly create innovative strategies to better utilize critical volunteer resources for the good of our communities.


Jane Leighty Justis is president of The Leighty Foundation, a small family foundation committed to investing its limited resources in ways that create the greatest impact and ensure the most valuable return on investment. She also serves as program director working with other funders and nonprofit organizations in the area of capacity building for volunteer engagement. Jane spent 20 years as a practitioner and trainer in the field of volunteer engagement, and, in addition to her current role with the foundation, she is a nationally recognized speaker on family philanthropy.