Nonprofits Need Volunteers More than Money, Sen. Warner Says

February 28, 2012; Source: Business Week

When Jean Case, the CEO of the Case Foundation (which she founded with her husband, former AOL and AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case), argued in the pages of the Washington Post that nonprofits themselves say that they don’t need more donations, but more pro bono technical assistance. Her brief op-ed was dismissed by many people as kind of out of touch, and reportedly Case herself tried to walk her comments back a little bit after she undoubtedly received some critical feedback.

Now Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the state’s former governor and a multi-millionaire due to his technology investments (notably Nextel and Capital Cellular), has been quoted telling Business Week the same thing in a somewhat more nuanced form:

Rather than just giving an organization some money, how do you actually help build their capacity?” Warner said. “It’s great if a corporation lets off all their folks for a day to paint or build a house. It’s better if the corporation can lend specific expertise to the nonprofit.”

Are such statements the odd musings of two extraordinarily rich people who don’t appreciate the struggle of nonprofits to pay for their services and their personnel in the midst of a prolonged charitable giving downturn? There may be a little more to be concerned about with the Warner/Case message:

  1. Both are members (Case the former chair, Warner the current chair) of President Obama’s “President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation.”

  2. Case is the co-founder and Warner the honorary chairman of “A Billion + Change,” which Business Week describes as a “national campaign…to match nonprofits with so-called skills-based volunteer services” (getting corporations to pledge employees’ volunteer time). The campaign is managed by the Points of Light organization based in Atlanta.

  3. Warner is one of the nation’s most powerful and influential Democrats, sometimes talked about as a vice presidential candidate. He is slated to become the senior senator from Virginia when Senator Jim Webb leaves office, and is the “honorary chair” of the Forward Together PAC.

The obligatory accolades to the value of volunteers aside, nonprofits are starving for cash. Both sides of the aisle in Congress are cutting and slashing key federal programs sustaining community nonprofits such as the Community Development Block Grant and the Community Services Block Grant programs, which the NPQ Newswire has frequently noted are endangered. We doubt that Warner and Case are telling the big universities that recently announced 2011 fundraising totals in the hundreds of millions to forego their revenues in favor of pro bono volunteers from the corporate sector. Volunteers cannot make up for the losses in charitable and governmental support that nonprofits around the nation have suffered.

Please, Sen. Warner and CEO Case, don’t feed the nation the popular and inaccurate trope that the nonprofit sector needs volunteers instead of money. It may give corporations positive spin for their willingness to give employees some days off to do volunteer work, and it may provide welcome infusions of temporary labor to supplement the hard work of nonprofit employees. But working for nonprofits, just like working for Nextel or AOL, is a career, not a hobby. Nonprofits need capacity-building for sure, but giving them money to purchase and retain trained, capable professionals is much more preferable than relying on the occasional and usually inconsistent availability of corporate volunteers.—Rick Cohen

  • Albert

    While cash is a chief concern for non profits, you have to consider part of the message being delivered. If professionals, such as CPAs and Attorneys, were to donate their service instead of charging for it, you would have an increase is cash flows. A small non profit can easily have $50-60K in professional fees annually, and that money could be used elsewhere if it were donated.

  • PeteB

    Volunteers form the backbone of the operations at the nonprofit where I work. I understand the value of general and skilled volunteers alike. I agree with Mrs. Case and Sen. Warner that corporations need to get strategic with their human resources, when it comes to community service. I believe Sen. Warner was simply sharing his passion for national and community service when he made the assumption that most companies tend to donate financially to certain causes, but they must also engage their employees in strategic volunteer activities — hence his statement (paraphrased), “Companies should do more than JUST GIVE; they should also help build an organization’s capacity through employee engagement.” At our nonprofit, we’ll gladly accept both :-)

  • David Geilhufe

    As someone that runs an extensive skilled volunteering program supporting the back office capacity of nonprofits through donations of financial, database, constituent relationship management and eCommerce technologies, I can unequivocally say that skilled volunteers do not create capacity, they improve capacity that [I]is all ready there[/I].

    Rick, your exactly right that volunteers are not a replacement for cash, especially if those skilled volunteers do not have a long term commitment to the success of the organization. But that doesn’t mean that investments of cash in the infrastructure that could make skilled volunteering as valuable as cash to an organization don’t make sense.

  • Valerie Jones

    As a nonprofit employer in an organization where the mission is about promoting volunteerism, I whole heartedly agree that the organizations in our sector need cash. While volunteers solve community based problems through their efforts, they are not a free source of labor. For volunteers to be effective in the nonprofit sector, there is a cost to the nonprofit that hosts the volunteers. In my own experience, the mission I am charged with tending could not be accomplished unless the more than 1,000 active volunteers working on our programs and services also have access to the staffing and volunteer management infrastructure currently in place to ensure their success. And that takes money. On the plus side, volunteers are more consistent and generous donors than non-volunteers.

  • Seth

    Although I understand your math, that if attorneys and accountants simply donated their time to nonprofits there would be more money for programs, however, the fact is that the vast majority of accontants and attorneys have no idea about how to advise nonprofits on the special rules that gopevern their legal and financial activities. You wouldn’t expect a dermatologist to perform yor byp[ass operation. Well the sqame is true in the philanthropy field – specialized knowledge is required. Of course the old adage also applies – “you get what you pay for”. No doubt pro bono services may help nonprofits on routine real estate, labor and other such matters, but most legal and acoounting needs of nonprofits are very specific and require more than general accounting adn legal knowledge. People who speicalize in these areas need to get paid for thier services, otherwise who would bother to constantly keep abreast of the field.

  • Annastasia Palubiski

    Not-for-profits must realize that money is a limited resource and if it becomes our sole focus we will always operate from a deficit position. These organizations will always lament “we don’t have enough $ to…[fill in the blank]”

    Leading organizations are those that understand and capitalize on the competitive advantage of the not-for-profit sector: the have access to an unlimited pool of talent and expertise in the form of knowledge philanthropists (skilled volunteers). When creating strategies to achieve their mission, these organizations come from a position of abundance and ask first, “Who can we find with the right skills and expertise?” instead of “how much will it cost?”

  • Nathan Slovin

    Well said, but one aspect of in-kind, pro bono or volunteer contributions is in sustainability. Nonprofit organizations need to build a structure that is sustainable beyond the energies or gifts of certain individuals & need reliability/accountability to grow. Members or donors amay be expert in technology but this is sometimes is not transferable to the nonprofits. In areas like legal and accounting services it is most valuable for the organization to use professionals who have specific and unique skills and professionals whose independence will help avoid any possible appearance of impropriety

  • Lori Kaplan

    The value add of skills based and pro bono service is the cornerstone of Billion+Change messaging and focus. As a speaker at their launch event in November, I heard first hand from both Senator Warner and Jean Case their conviction that the campaign offered a way for companies to make deeper investments in the organizations they support, not replace financial contributions. As the Executive Director of the Latin American Youth Centes, I have been the beneficiary of amazing SBV services from Capital One that helped to improve and refine our financial decision making. Their service could not have been purchased within our budgets, but it has been invaluable in helping us manage in tough times. I appreciate the Billion + Change as a way for corporations to lend their talent and expertise to the non-profit sector. I did not hear this to be a message of replacing financial support, I heard it as an additional contribution that corporations of all sizes can make to our sector.

  • Denise Barkhurst

    Who will manage all these volunteers? My non profit has a waiting list of volunteers because we don’t have enough funding for staff to manage them.

  • rick cohen

    Speaking personally, Denise, I agree entirely. When the early crafters of AmeriCorps thought that the program would toss batches of young (stipended) volunteers at nonprofits, they had no sense of the issue of managing volunteers. Sometimes we still encounter this phenomenon where volunteerism is lauded as a numbers game–look at all the volunteers! take a photo! are they wearing t-shirts with the logo?–as opposed to doing work that the nonprofits and the communities need. We raised the issue of management of volunteers in our 2008 article, “Volunteering by the Numbers” (, citing some good research from the UK exploring what was missing from the management side of volunteering. Thanks for reminding the NPQ readers of this important issue.


    life is so funny…i try find a way to become VOLUNTEER AND I DONT FIND WHERE AND HOW !