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Balancing Act

The Challenges and Benefits of Volunteers

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Document date: December 31, 2004
Released online: December 31, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Research funded by The Corporation for National and Community Service and the UPS Foundation.

No. 4 in the Volunteer Management Capacity Study series.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


Executive Summary

This report is the fourth in a series of briefs reporting on findings from a 2003 survey of volunteer management capacity among charities and congregations. The findings are based on conversations with a systematic sample of charities about their practices, challenges, and aspirations for their volunteer programs. The focus of this brief is the creation and use of a single measure of volunteer benefits and management challenges, a score we refer to as “net benefits.”

Evaluation is a popular means by which nonprofit organizations, their funders, and their constituents can measure and demonstrate progress and effectiveness. Nonetheless, evaluation is not regularly conducted in most volunteer programs. “Net benefits” is a summary statistic that weighs the benefits of volunteer involvement against the problems that volunteer administrators encounter in recruitment and management. Net benefits is easy to calculate. As an evaluation tool, it lends itself to comparison and benchmarking across a variety of volunteer programs and sponsoring nonprofit organizations. Net benefits scores are highest when charities receive maximum public benefits from volunteers with few challenges in recruitment and management. Conversely, charities that report problems in these areas and few benefits from volunteers score low on the net benefits measure.

Investment in Volunteer Management Yields Higher Net Benefits. Two major dimensions of volunteer management capacity are adoption of a range of recommended management practices (such as screening and matching of volunteers to appropriate assignments) and employment of a staff member or a dedicated volunteer who can devote a substantial amount of time to the volunteer program. We learned that both are independently related to an organization’s net benefits score. Organizations that had adopted more volunteer management practices had higher net benefits than organizations that had adopted fewer. Organizations with an identifiable coordinator had higher net benefits than organizations without such a coordinator. Both findings point to the value of investing in volunteer management capacity.

Organizations that Rely on Volunteers Report Higher Net Benefits. The role that volunteers play in an organization influences the net benefits score. Charities that use a lot of volunteers who spend a lot of hours with the organization report higher net benefits scores, as do charities that have a high volunteer-to-paid staff ratio. We also learned that charities benefit from giving volunteers a variety of options to contribute to the operations of the organization, ranging from direct service to bookkeeping to advocacy and fundraising. When charities use volunteers primarily for office tasks, net benefits scores are notably lower. In sum, charities that rely less on volunteers, or that give volunteers a narrow range of options to use their skills, score lower on net benefits.

Type and Size of Charity Have Little Influence on Net Benefits. The nonprofit sector is notably diverse, and two major hallmarks of this diversity are the wideranging missions and sizes of various charities. When it comes to net benefits from volunteers, however, type and size play a negligible role. While we found that human service organizations have slightly lower net benefits scores (on average), education, health, and arts organizations were virtually indistinguishable.

Our findings were similar when we looked for differences between organizations of different sizes. The smallest charities—those with less than $100,000 in annual expenditures—achieve higher net benefits on average, due partially to their greater reliance on and small-group relationships with volunteers. However, charities with little more than $100,000 in expenditures are hardly distinguishable from charities with multimillion dollar budgets. Resources are important, but money alone cannot buy benefits from volunteers.

The research shows that the cultivation of a well-managed volunteer program is important in maximizing the benefits and minimizing the challenges of working with volunteers. By investing in volunteer management capacity, charities can improve their net benefits scores.


Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Governing | Nonprofits


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