Volunteers as Donors - Lost Cause?

by Adam Clevenger, CFRE on October 24, 2017

Sometimes I feel it may be more effective to hit my head against a wall. I’ve long since adopted Saint Jude as my patron because I often fight the lost cause. Recently, the lost cause I’ve been fighting is getting organizations to ask their volunteers to give. Why is it so hard? Because it is the third rail of philanthropy and too often people’s misconceptions of donors and their giving habits get in the way.


So, here’s my case, laid out in four charts:


  1. 80% of all giving in the United States comes from Individuals

Giving USA publishes giving trends each year. Consistently, individuals (outright contributions and bequests) total three quarters of ALL gifts. Individuals are charitable, no question.


Source: GivingUSA 2017


  1. 67% of American Households make a charitable contribution

More people give money to charity than vote. (Let that sink in a bit.) Giving is something that most of us are taught from an early age and it becomes a part of what we do. Not only to most households in the US give, the average amount given to charity is roughly $3,000. Odds are, your volunteers are giving somewhere. Why not to a place where they already give so much time and energy?



  1. 80% of volunteers give, compared to 40% of non-volunteers

Your volunteers already demonstrate their empathy and bias towards philanthropy. They already give you their most precious commodity, time. Volunteering positively affects a donor’s gift decision. Giving deepens the relationship, creating enthusiastic and loyal supporters.



Source: Volunteering and Civic Life in America



  1. Lower income individuals give twice as much of their income than high net worth individuals

It’s a common misconception that volunteers give their time because they don’t have money to give. Many people also wrongly assume that only wealthy people give to charity. These are two dangerous assumptions because it falsely creates two classes of philanthropists: the wealthy donors and the poor laborers. Perhaps volunteers donate their time because they enjoy it, or they’re bored,  or a myriad of other reasons. My point is, stop making assumptions.



What frustrates me the most in these conversations is that we assume volunteers won’t give, so we don’t ask. We say no for our volunteers. By not asking, we send a message to volunteers that we don’t need their gifts. Once this belief becomes a part of the culture, you can’t unwind it. What’s worse is that we spend a lot of time asking people outside of our organizations for support. There is no one closer to your mission than your volunteers. It is much better to assume that a volunteer would also be a much more loyal donor, thus reducing your donor attrition and increasing your net profits. Before your organization does another special event, solicits another corporate gift, sends one more acquisition direct mail, or writes one more grant proposal, execute a strategy to ask volunteers to support your mission with a gift.


What should you do?

  • Demonstrate the need for and the use of charitable contributions.
  • Articulate the impact of their gifts.
  • Involve Volunteer-Donors in soliciting others.
  • Segment your approach to focus on volunteers and acknowledge their service.
  • ASK!


Volunteering makes someone much more likely to give. But, you must ask. Don’t let misconceptions and bad assumptions lead to not asking. Give volunteers an opportunity to engage with your organization more completely.


Once we solve this issue, I’ll be free to move on to the next lost cause…there are so many!

Adam Clevenger, a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), has spent his entire career building donor passion for causes. For over a decade, Adam has created donor-centered and sustainable fundraising programs. Adam is a Senior Associate with Loring Sternberg and Associates (LSA), an Indianapolis-based nonprofit management and fundraising consulting. Prior to joining LSA, Adam was the Director of Development for the Indiana Repertory Theatre, serving 109,000 students and patrons, engaging 2,200 annual donors, securing $2.5 million annually and launching a capital campaign. Adam has erved as Regional Collaboration Manager for the YMCA of the USA, working closely with 300 local Ys to support their development efforts; Director of Annual Giving for the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis providing leadership to the annual campaign for 13 branches that raised more than $2 million each year. Additionally, he is a YMCA Faculty Trainer for the Annual Campaign and Introduction to Fundraising courses, a frequent contributor to Bloomerang and the North American YMCA Development Organization (NAYDO) blogs, and conference presenter.  As a volunteer, Adam serves as a board member and former VP of Resource Development for Indiana Chapter of Association for Fundraising Professionals (AFP), both the Advisory Council and Development Committee for Second Helpings in Indianapolis, Stewardship Committee for Second Presbyterian Church, a board member for Indiana YMCA Youth and Government and Hanover College Business Scholars Program Leadership Council. Adam and his wife, Jess, enjoy traveling, gardening and spending time with their daughters and two energetic dogs. Follow him on Twitter, @adamclevenger.