Why Charities Should Treat Volunteers Like Donors

Do Volunteers Pay Their Own Way by Donating?

Volunteers of several ages and ethnicities enjoying their work.

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Volunteers love helping out their favorite causes for many reasons. Volunteers have better physical and mental health, are less lonely, learn new skills, and make new friends. But the main reason people love volunteering is the sheer joy of helping, of doing some good in an often cruel world.

The payoff for charities who keep their volunteers happy goes way beyond just their donated hours. That's because volunteers donate their money just as eagerly and expansively as they give of their time.

Two studies in recent years have shown that the overlap between volunteering and donating is huge.

So, If your charity needs more motivation to recruit volunteers, treat them well, and find ways to keep them forever, read on for how and why your volunteers are also primo donors.

Super Volunteers Make Super Donors

According to Fidelity Charitable's Time and Money: The Role of Volunteering in Philanthropy, 87 percent of people who support cherished causes do so with both time and money. And 43 percent say that the causes they give to are the ones where they volunteer.

Which comes first? Donating or volunteering? That’s something of a chicken or egg question, but Fidelity uncovers some subtle insights. 

For instance, 58 percent of people questioned said they donated first and then volunteered. But two in five (42 percent) volunteered before donating.

Some people “try out” a charity by volunteering before deciding to give. On the other hand, half of the volunteers surveyed said that their volunteer experience led to larger donations.

The volunteer experience a nonprofit offers is more important than one might think. Volunteering brings in new gifts and helps upgrade current donors. It also means that a bad volunteer experience could be doubly disastrous.

The Fidelity Charitable donors are a particularly robust lot, with four in five volunteering and two-thirds of those providing 50 or more hours each year. There were also super volunteers (41 percent) who turned in more than 100 hours of their time to volunteer. Furthermore, 49 percent of all these volunteers did it for three or more organizations. 

For comparison, another study by the Corporation for National and Community service found that, overall, one in four Americans volunteered through an organization in 2015. Even more people engaged in informal volunteering by helping out neighbors. All of that work amounted to 7.8 billion hours, worth about $184 billion.

How Age Affects Volunteerism

Age affects to a large degree how much people volunteer and how they prefer to do it. 

The Fidelity study found that younger donors were more likely to volunteer, but they also spent fewer hours overall. Older donors gave more time.

Younger donors were more concerned with the number of hours an opportunity took, and they liked family volunteer opportunities. Older donors were more interested in volunteer opportunities that required a particular skill set. Both younger and older donors planned to do more volunteering in the future.

The CNCS research found that: 

  • Americans aged 35-44 were the most likely age group to volunteer followed by Baby Boomers.
  • One in five Millennials (age 16-32) volunteered. Young adults attending college volunteer at twice as often as those who didn't attend college
  • Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation give more hours to volunteering. In 2015, Volunteers aged 65-74 averaged 88 hours of annual volunteering and those 75 and older averaged 100 hours. 
  • Working mothers have the highest rate of volunteering among all populations (36 percent). Parents with children under age 18 volunteer more than the national average (31.3 percent).

    What Causes and Activities Most Engage Volunteers?

    Overall, according to the Fidelity research, most volunteers (74 percent) donated time to supporting charitable programs, but many engage more deeply, with 54 percent serving on a board, 43 percent helping with fundraising, and 36 percent donating their professional services.

    What nonprofit sectors attract the most volunteers? This survey found that people gave the most time and money to organizations that support religion, education, and human services. Nonprofits that work with the environment, animals and are international were more likely to receive money than donated time.

    The CNCS study found that many volunteers worked with youth through tutoring and teaching. Nearly 25 percent worked on hunger issues while 24 percent helped with fundraising.

    Why Volunteers Should Be Treated Like Donors

    The Fidelity study revealed that high rates of volunteerism seem to go with those organizations with regular contact with potential volunteers, and that had robust infrastructures to support volunteer engagement. They, in fact, treated volunteers like treasured donors.

    Volunteerism really should be considered more than just “helping out.” It can be a vital part of fundraising by encouraging existing donors to give more, creating new donors, and retaining them

    The Volunteering and Civic Life in America research revealed that nearly twice the number (80 percent) of volunteers donate to charity as people who don't volunteer (40 percent). More than half of all American citizens (50.5 percent) gave at least $25 to charitable causes in 2015.

    What a bargain! Most volunteers actually pay charities to volunteer by giving back. Some savvy nonprofits even place their volunteer coordinator within the development department. If that is not the case for your organization, at least start talking to your volunteer coordinator more often. Work with her to extend the value of those volunteers.


    The Fidelity survey was conducted by Ipsos for Fidelity Charitable in August-September 2014. Fidelity Charitable is a donor-advised fund program.

    The Volunteering and Civic Life in America research was compiled from US Census data and released by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) in Nov 2016.