October 22, 2014

Solving the Catch-22 of Volunteer Programs with Measurement

Among the things that we, as nonprofit professionals, have to cram into our day, tracking and measurement generally sit pretty close to the top of the “I know it’s important but I never have time for it” pile. Don’t deny it. If only we had more time, we could implement all of the awesome strategies and tactics we learn by reading the NTEN Blog!

This is even truer for measuring the impact of our volunteer programs. At the risk of showing a persecution complex, volunteer programs are often seen as a “nice to have” when it comes to nonprofit resources and support. After all, volunteers are supposed to be free, right?


The truth is, volunteer programs require budget and resources just like any other nonprofit program does. They will give back at least ten times that amount in the long run, if given the necessary support. Thus the frustrating catch-22 of the nonprofit volunteer program: If we only had more money, we could invest in volunteer programs that would enable us to get more money!

Why is Measuring Volunteer Impact Important?

One way to break this vicious cycle is to prove to nonprofit leaders and funders that volunteers really are a keystone program in the nonprofit sector. And when we say “prove,” we mean lots and lots of pretty charts, graphs, and data visualizations, of course.

The need to invest more in volunteers is just another symptom of the larger nonprofit funding conundrum made popular by Dan Pallotta and the folks who launched the Overhead Myth: By penalizing nonprofits that make staff and operational support a priority, we’re essentially setting the entire sector up for failure. I mean, who would run a business like that?

Data, in my opinion, can help us overcome these gross (aka “disgusting”) misconceptions. For example, did you know that the lifetime value of a volunteer recruited (for free) via the VolunteerMatch network is over $3,000? Beat that ROI!

There’s more: Reimagining Service has a whole page of resources to help you make the case for volunteer management funding. From research on the estimated value of volunteer time, to connecting the dots between volunteer management and organizational effectiveness, there’s enough data here to keep any tech geek happy for hours.

Your Volunteer Impact Report

It’s often not enough, however, to quote other folks’ statistics. What about your experiences? How do volunteers impact your organizations, and how can we all learn from this to make sure our programs are better supported in the future?

Back in the spring of 2014, VolunteerMatch partnered with technology review firm Software Advice to find out what metrics, indicators, and data collection methods nonprofits are using to measure volunteers’ impact on their organizations’ outcomes.

We ended up getting over 2,700 responses from organizations of all shapes, sizes, and locations. Some of the data points presented in the first-ever Volunteer Impact Report provide unexpected lessons about the role volunteer programs play in organizational success, and how nonprofits are tracking and measuring this.

For example, when reporting on the benefits of measuring volunteer impact, many respondents mentioned increased recruitment and retention of volunteers, as well as improved program outcomes overall. Additionally, a full 17% of respondents also reported that their organizations obtained more funding because these impact numbers motivated funders to give!

Tying measurement directly to bottom-line fundraising results? Yes, please! Despite this encouraging statistic, however, only 55% of respondents said that their organizations measure volunteer impact at all. The key obstacles, not surprisingly, are lack of resources, time, and knowledge.

Don’t Let It End Here

So what have we learned? Measuring volunteer impact on your organization not only results in more successful volunteer programs and more successful nonprofits in general, it also helps organizations raise more money. And yet, a significant portion of nonprofits are not tracking the impact of volunteers.

How can we fix this?

First of all, if your organization is not currently tracking volunteer impact, take a look at the Volunteer Impact Report to see how others are doing it. There’s information in there about the frequency, strategies and tools other nonprofits are using.

Next, grab a couple of coworkers who also believe this is important and form an alliance. Convince your leadership and coworkers that tracking and reporting a few key volunteer program metrics will help everyone’s goals in the long run.

Finally, utilize the great resources from organizations like NTEN and VolunteerMatch to gain access to the skills, tools and advice you need to conduct your surveys, analyze your data and improve your programs.

Shari Tishman
Shari Tishman runs communications and business development at VolunteerMatch, the Web’s largest volunteer engagement network. Previously, Shari led marketing and outreach at GreatNonprofits, and worked with Net Impact and the Stanford Office of Development. You can find her online @VolunteerMatch and @heystish.