The Value of Volunteering

For some nonprofits, donations of time are just as important—if not more so—than financial contributions.

By Lisa Hooker
From the February 2013 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson
  • Tim Johnson

Nonprofit organizations have a few critical needs that help them meet their missions: a staff, a facility and donations of goods, services, money and time. While all of those are important, many nonprofit executives say that volunteers are the backbone of their organizations.

“The question really is, what role don’t they play?” says Nancy Nestor-Baker, senior assistant vice president of community development for United Way of Central Ohio. “United Way engages volunteers across the organization. They’re a core part of all that we do.”

“Volunteering allows people to scratch that elemental itch to help others. You forget yourself and your troubles when you help others,” says Andrew Roberts, CEO of the YMCA of Central Ohio.

A Corporation for National and Community Service report found that the 2011 national volunteer rate had reached its highest level since 2006. More than 64 million Americans—roughly one in four adults—volunteered approximately 8 billion hours, valued at $171 billion. Ohio ranked 28th in the nation, with more than 2.4 million Ohioans serving more than 255 million total hours. That value totals $5.7 billion.

“Ohioans take pride in helping their neighbors and dedicating their time to address critical issues. Our residents are committed to strengthening our state and our nation through service to others,” said ServeOhio Executive Director William Hall in a news release about the report. ServeOhio is a governor-appointed commission that promotes volunteerism.

The Great Recession affected volunteerism, but in a positive way. “Because so many people were displaced, people stepped back and assessed what was important to them. They’re looking for opportunities to make a difference and do something meaningful. A lot of people have contacted us about nonprofits and volunteering,” says Jennifer Eschbach, executive director of the Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations.

“Organizations also have become more reliant on volunteers not only for golf outings, fundraisers and galas, but also for day-to-day work. Staff positions and resources dropped just at the time demand for services increased. In many cases, volunteers stepped in,” Eschbach says.

Volunteers will find a warm welcome at Central Ohio nonprofit organizations, where extra pairs of hands are always needed. They can contribute as much or as little time as they choose. Nonprofit executives say these efforts impact lives and the community in ways prospective volunteers might not even realize.

 

Volunteer Activities

Children’s Hunger Alliance (CHA) utilizes volunteers in myriad capacities. “They serve as board members and they staff special events. Volunteers are part of our summer feeding sites. And if our after-school sites need help, we help them find volunteers. They also help out in our office,” says Mary Lou Langenhop, the organization’s president and CEO.

CHA feeds children nutritious meals at sponsored child-care sites and after-school programs. The agency increases access to nutritious food through school breakfast programs and summer feeding locations. To help fight obesity, CHA educates children about healthful food choices and the benefits of physical activity. “We can’t do any of those things without volunteers,” Langenhop says.

In 2012, CHA estimates 1,600 volunteers contributed to the agency. “We’ve calculated the associated dollar amount at about $75,000 in support, but my guess is that’s too low,” Langenhop says.

The Columbus Literacy Council teaches reading, writing, listening and speaking skills to adults who read below an eighth-grade level. It also assists students who learn English as a second language and people working toward their General Educational Development (GED) diploma.

More than 120,000 Franklin County residents are functionally illiterate, and 98 percent of them live in poverty. Executive Director Joy Reyes says the literacy council’s impact reaches beyond students. “Parents are the best role models for reading, but they have to be equipped. An adult in the home who sees the value of reading, writing and speaking properly will encourage those skills in their children,” she says. “That, in turn, can help to turn around the cycle of poverty and other societal ills.”

In 2011, literacy council volunteers donated 204,728 hours of service in a vast range of activities—a value of nearly $4.5 million. If the nonprofit relied on staff alone, Reyes says, at best, it could serve 300 students annually. By using about 300 volunteers a week for at least four hours each, it can offer 60 classes to more than 3,000 students at 23 different sites. “We would not be able to operate at the capacity that we do without our volunteers,” Reyes says.

Just like its member agencies, United Way of Central Ohio relies on volunteers to help address its impact areas: quality education, stable income, good health and secure housing. About 300 volunteers serve in leadership positions. “They’re our board of trustees and our committee members. They make decisions every day about our four impact areas. And then there are thousands more who are vitally important to us in carrying out our mission,” Nestor-Baker says.

Volunteers also allow United Way to operate efficiently. “About 90 cents of every dollar we raise goes to direct services. Our volunteers help us keep overhead down,” says communications director Kermit Whitfield.

“Volunteers obviously contribute to the greater good by giving their time. But that work ripples far beyond the agency they’re volunteering for and usually has a financial impact that we don’t think about. Estimates of the value of volunteerism are usually low, because they don’t take into account the tangential economic value,” Nestor-Baker says.

She cites the example of an after-school tutor. “That volunteer means the school district doesn’t have to hire another staff member, and that saves tax dollars,” Nestor-Baker says. As the student increases his or her academic ability, it cuts remedial education costs for the district. Later in life, the student likely will experience greater achievement and higher earning potential. “Multiply that by client after client, and the economic impact of that one volunteer is amazing,” she says.

The YMCA of Central Ohio operates 12 branches, four outdoor/multipurpose facilities and three educational care centers. In 2011, about 3,500 volunteers collectively donated 10,300 hours of service. “We also have a 30-member metro volunteer board of directors, and each branch has advisory volunteers,” Roberts says.

Volunteers staff a range of YMCA programs. “About 200 adult and teen volunteers staff our Delaware baseball program. They work with 800 kids. We wouldn’t be able to run programs the broader community counts on without volunteers,” Roberts says. “The Y and other nonprofits contribute to the communities we serve. We’re efficiently delivering value to our stakeholders, and we do it through a volunteer model.”

Don’t underestimate the future potential of volunteers. “Volunteering may be all they can offer now, and it’s always needed. As they see the great things that are occurring in the organization, volunteers often become financial donors at some point. They don’t need convincing, because they experience the group’s mission firsthand,” Eschbach says.

 

Recruit & Train

Finding volunteers can be challenging when people’s schedules are already overloaded and time is a precious commodity. Nonprofits pursue every avenue to add more helpers to the roster.

“People can sign up through the CHA website, and our current volunteers tell others, too. We work a lot with our corporate sponsors and partners. They’re generous with their financial resources and the time their employee can volunteer. The companies have conscious strategies that let their employees be active volunteers,” Langenhop says. “As they volunteer with us, we help them understand how their volunteering fits into CHA’s other activities and larger mission.”

Literacy council volunteers come through word of mouth, speaking engagements, its website, church bulletins and community newsletters. However, Reyes says the bulk of referrals come through established individual relationships.

In addition to traditional recruiting methods, United Way taps into social media. “Last I checked, we have the largest Facebook following of any United Way,” Nestor-Baker says.

She says attracting volunteers is a partnership between agencies, individuals and corporations. “They work together to identify where the greatest needs are, and then we funnel resources there, including volunteers,” Nestor-Baker says.

“Volunteerism lives within social responsibility,” Roberts says. “Each Y is different, though. Our volunteers help to meet the needs that our Y is best suited to serve in that community. We interact with our local communities in so many ways—youth sports, child care, camping, working with the homeless, assisting truant kids—that once folks articulate their interest, we can match them.”

YMCA members also recruit new volunteers. “Activating our 27,000 units of membership for volunteers is intentional. Some organizations have volunteer recruitment departments. We’re not that sophisticated. We’re more organic and grassroots,” Roberts says.

Child protection is always at the forefront. “As with any organization that works with kids, we background check and fingerprint everyone who volunteers with us,” Roberts says.

Once volunteers are in the fold, nonprofits train them. At CHA, Langenhop says, “The training depends on what they’ll be doing and what resources they need to do the job.”

All literacy council volunteers complete an orientation. Office volunteers undergo operations training. Volunteers assisting students in the computer lab take the technology model. Those working one-to-one or as teams with students must finish the student program model. “Upon completion of our training program, volunteers can receive a Pro-Literacy of America certification. The council only pairs volunteers who are going to be tutoring in a one-to-one relationship after they have completed training,” Reyes says.

 

Find Your Place

Some people may be familiar with HandsOn Central Ohio because it operates the 2-1-1 service that connects those in need to appropriate community resources. But the nonprofit, part of the national HandsOn Network, also pairs volunteers with organizations and nonprofit agencies.

“Whether it’s an individual or a group—social, fraternal, civic or corporate—we can develop a program or project just for them. Or we can match them to an existing one that’s in need of volunteers. There’s always some way to help,” says Marilee Chinnici-Zuercher, HandsOn Central Ohio’s president and CEO.

Through the national Points of Light Action Network, HandsOn also offers community service resources and ideas for children and teens through generationOn, while a Corporate Institute enables companies to engage employees and customers in volunteer service.

Including children or grandchildren, when appropriate, shows them the value of volunteerism firsthand. “Everyone can help. You’re never too young,” Chinnici-Zuercher says.

In some respects, today’s volunteers differ from those in the past. “People have less discretionary time. More of them are looking for short-term or one-time opportunities instead of ongoing or long-term commitments,” Chinnici-Zuercher says.

The volunteer opportunity calendar at HandsOn Central Ohio’s website serves as a matchmaking resource. “Individuals, groups of friends and civic groups use the calendar to see what organizations need help when. Just click on any day. The contact information is listed, so you can contact them directly to help, even if it’s just for a few hours,” Chinnici-Zuercher says.

Lisa Hooker is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the February 2013 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.