Taking Advantage of the Time-Money Relationship to Engage Both Volunteers and Donors

Editors note: This article was first published this week at Frogloop, the blog for nonprofits in the Care2 community.

Some people give time to help your organization, and it’s important to recruit and manage them effectively.  Others give money, and it’s critical to cultivate and engage these folks. But what about those who give both?

Recently VolunteerMatch and our friends at Fidelity® Charitable Gift Fund teamed up to release original research on U.S. volunteering habits. One of the most interesting findings was how often volunteers also give money — and, more importantly, the level at which they give.

According to the survey, while volunteers reported giving close to $2,600 last year, non-volunteers gave just $230. Furthermore, two-thirds (67%) of those who volunteer say they generally make their financial donations to the same organizations where they volunteer.

The study also found:

  • Active volunteers say they are more likely to increase their charitable donations in 2010 when compared to people who have never volunteered (32% of volunteers compared with 26% of non-volunteers).
  • Nearly three in ten respondents plan to increase their charitable giving this year.
  • Almost half (47%) of those surveyed agreed that when they volunteer they’re “more motivated by what they get from the experience than by what they can do for others.”

You can download the report here. [ PDF ]

For nonprofits, the report joins a growing chorus of research that all point to the possibilities of increasing your pool of funders by inviting likely candidates to volunteer first.

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Research, Stanford University’s Cassie Mogilner and Jennifer Aaker call this “The Time vs. Money Effect.” In their analysis of attitudes about money and personal time, they found that because time spent with a product “increases focus on product experience,” marketers (and, by extension, nonprofits) can boost attitudes about the value of the product or service by engaging the time of their audience. The corollary is also true: positive feelings about giving only money to support a cause decline much more quickly.

Of course, research is one thing; putting the findings into practice is another. Just because a volunteer is likely to give money doesn’t mean he or she should be treated like any donor – and vice versa.  Where should nonprofits start? A good approach might be to look at your organization’s current theory of engagement.

Up the Ladder and Across the Aisle

The classic model for involvement today is the “engagement ladder.” Here the first step to a deep connection with your organization is a low-commitment activity such as visiting your Web site, signing a petition, or “Liking” a post on your social network.

In this model, nonprofits are responsible for shepherding individuals through landscape of an ever-increasing commitment and responsibility. Or as this 2005 article at Fundraising Innovation states:

Over time, an individual supporter would be expected to engage in a variety activities, both high and low on the ladder. The goal of an online engagement strategy is not just get increased numbers of people involved, but also to encourage them to climb the ladder of engagement.

This model is a familiar one for volunteer administrators, too: start a volunteer off with small projects today and maybe tomorrow she’ll be willing to commit to a long-term skilled role. In fact, it turns out that most organizations have twin ladders of engagement – one for development, one for volunteer management, two helixes snaking up ever higher and only rarely crossing paths.

Of course, the two ladders are not equal. What nonprofits get from their volunteers is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from donors – and staffing and resource decisions at nonprofits usually to reflect this. Development teams are frequently paid more, get more IT support and software, and have more access to upper management and the board.

So how do we move from this model of parallel engagement paths to one that encourages collaboration between departments?

Increase the Opportunities for Supporters to Engage

Acknowledging the fact that deepening the engagement of volunteers could have a lasting impact on your organization’s financial health is a great start. The next step is extending the ways you use volunteers.

There has always been a strong correlation between the number of volunteer opportunities an organization has and how many volunteers you can recruit. In the volunteer world, simply put, the more you ask for help, the more people are likely to want to help.

You can leverage this by creating opportunities that utilize the time and talent of the donors you are hoping to eventually have. This could point the way to more skilled opportunities like legal, marketing, accounting, and operations help – but it also could lead to more projects that can scale up to engage hundreds of volunteers at a time, such as large events or crowd-sourcing projects.

Grow Volunteering with a Piece of the Development Pie

Volunteers may be priceless, but it takes money to recruit and manage them. Stuck in a silo of human resources, it’s a big challenge for volunteer managers to make the case for increased funding for training, IT, outreach, events, or volunteer appreciation. But with a growing awareness of volunteering as a donor cultivation tool, all that changes.
You may want to start by peeling off a small percentage of the fundraising budget to volunteer-related activities. Over time you can increase this seed funding by reinvesting a greater portion of the donations that come in over and above your organization’s annual fundraising target.

Invest in Systems for Tracking Impact

You can’t change what you don’t measure. A great way to use this initial “seed funding” would be to spend it on customizing your donor and volunteer management systems to track a unified set of goals.

What’s worth tracking? Aside from what percentage of individuals gifts come from volunteers, it’s a great idea to keep an eye on donations by volunteers, volunteers who are willing to help raise money for the organization, contacts by development staff with volunteers, and the volunteer referral history of individual donors.

Over time, and with the right systems in place, you should be able to track how much your cross-department approach to volunteer management and fundraising is paying off.