Beyond Financial Giving: The Power of Volunteerism

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Alex Counts is the Executive Director of the India Philanthropy Alliance.

One of the most impressive aspects of American philanthropy is its sheer size. In 2022, U.S. citizens, residents, foundations, and companies donated an astonishing $499 billion to better society through charities and nonprofits. It is worth mentioning that this is just a tiny fraction of the overall revenue generated, which is more than $2.4 trillion. This amount comes from a variety of sources such as government contracts and grants, earned revenue, investment income, etc. 

A Gigantic Volunteer Workforce, with Indian-Americans Leading the Way               

But alongside these top-line numbers is another startling aspect: each year, around 64 million Americans volunteer their time for nonprofits. They average 137 donated hours each, meaning that they contributed nine trillion hours to nonprofits annually, the equivalent of 5.2 million people working full-time. The value of this donated time is approximately $195 billion.

Volunteerism in the nonprofit sector has existed in many forms throughout history, and the American approach to this strategy for societal problem-solving is gaining ground globally. Among foreign-born populations living in the U.S.A., Indian-Americans volunteer almost double the amount of time (220 hours per year) that typical Americans do. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that volunteers are a lynchpin of the American nonprofit sector, which itself constitutes 5.6 per cent of the national economy and 10 per cent of the American workforce. It is important to remember that volunteers also power many of the estimated 3.3 million nonprofits active in India today. 

While the number of people volunteering is slowly falling, the average number of hours committed by those donating their time is growing — so the total amount contributed has remained consistent over many years. Generally, volunteers also tend to be generous and regular donors to the nonprofits they contribute their time. Donating time is not typically a substitute for giving money but rather an on-ramp to doing so. 

Volunteerism in the nonprofit sector has existed in many forms throughout history, and the American approach to this strategy for societal problem-solving is gaining ground globally. Among foreign-born populations living in the U.S.A., Indian-Americans volunteer almost double the amount of time (220 hours per year) that typical Americans do.   

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that volunteers are a lynchpin of the American nonprofit sector, which itself constitutes 5.6 per cent of the national economy and 10 per cent of the American workforce. It is important to remember that volunteers also power many of the estimated 3.3 million nonprofits active in India today. 

Volunteering Can Benefit Many Stakeholders

But the beneficiaries of volunteerism extend far beyond the nonprofits themselves. Studies have shown that the levels of trust within communities directly correlate to the percentage of people involved in local nonprofits. Furthermore, as described by the Mayo Clinic, volunteers tend to be healthier, mentally and physically, than those who do not donate any of their time. Other studies have found that youth who volunteer are 25 per cent less likely to experience anxiety and that teenagers who volunteer at least one hour per week are 50 per cent less likely to adopt unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and abusing alcohol

Like most people starting underfunded nonprofits, I relied on volunteers heavily when I established the Grameen Foundation in 1997, as an ambitious but inexperienced 30-year-old (a story I told in detail in my book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind). I engaged all those eager to contribute by involving them in getting the organisation off the ground. It was chaotic at times, but also a wonderful experience of creating an intense community of purpose. However, unlike most leaders of start-ups that have matured into organisations with budgets exceeding $5 million—which constitutes less than 5 per cent of the 1.6 million nonprofits in the country—I doubled down on engaging volunteers as we grew. 

In reality, most charities sideline volunteers when they raise enough money to replace them with professional staff. (This might partly explain why the total number of volunteers is gradually decreasing.) Instead, I had the employees work aside volunteers in creative ways that initially startled staff I hired from other, more traditional organisations. But most employees learned to love these ‘force multipliers’, as we sometimes call them. These skills-based volunteers brought their expertise and passion in ways that complemented, motivated, and educated our staff. We coined the term ‘skillanthropy’ to describe their valuable contributions (and to distinguish their value-add from those given make-work projects that do not utilise volunteers’ full capabilities or anything close). 

In recognising the potential of volunteers, I suppose I was channelling the lessons I learned in the earliest part of my career as a volunteer and staff member for RESULTS, a leading international humanitarian group working on poverty that relies largely on its volunteer advocates to advance policies that empower the most vulnerable in the United States and around the world. (For more on how this extraordinary organisation works, check out the book Reclaiming Our Democracy: Every Citizen’s Guide to Transformational Advocacy by the Group’s founder, Sam Daley-Harris.) In India, many successful partnerships between State governments and nonprofits are initially facilitated by nonprofit volunteers. 

When I became the President and CEO of the American India Foundation in 2016, I was amazed by its volunteer culture that revolved around its chapters in major American cities. When I launched the India Philanthropy Alliance in 2018, I knew that celebrating and promoting volunteerism in the broader India-U.S. philanthropy corridor would be an essential part of the IPA network. And it truly has been.  Some of the leading members of the IPA network are all-volunteer organisations in the U.S. While I was initially sceptical of their ability to get things done without even a single employee, organisations like Vibha and Foundation for Excellence have proven that it is possible. 

Bankers Without Borders: An Important Model with Enduring Lessons

In fact, due to our successes in this area, the Grameen Foundation created one of the world’s largest volunteer reserve corps of volunteers and a vibrant programme to manage them called Bankers Without Borders (BWB), which continues to this day under the leadership of a Bangladeshi-American dynamo named Sabrina Quaraishi. It has more than 19,700 volunteers vetted and ready to serve mission-driven organisations. 

One of the insights that BWB channelled was that nonprofits tend to expect too little of volunteers, rather than too much. This was one of several lessons that had been catalogued by Shannon Maynard, the founder of BWB and now the leader of the Congressional Hunger Center, and three other authors including my former University of Maryland colleague, Professor Robert Grimm in an influential article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Even now, far too few nonprofits have taken these lessons fully on board.

The Experience of the India Philanthropy Alliance

When I became the President and CEO of the American India Foundation in 2016, I was amazed by its volunteer culture that revolved around its chapters in major American cities. When I launched the India Philanthropy Alliance in 2018, I knew that celebrating and promoting volunteerism in the broader India-U.S. philanthropy corridor would be an essential part of the IPA network. And it truly has been.  

At its core, IPA is driven by its 22 board members, none of whom is compensated by IPA and all but one of whom work for the U.S. arm of a leading Indian charity. There are task forces, steering committees, youth leadership groups, ambassador councils, and more that take the work of IPA forward every day. Our national youth essay competition, now in its fifth year, is led by past winners, the passionate staff of organisations like the Iowa-based Sehgal Foundation, volunteer judges, and generous donors such as Sarva Mangal Family Trust, based in Orange County, California. 

Some of the leading members of the IPA network are all-volunteer organisations in the U.S. While I was initially sceptical of their ability to get things done without even a single employee, organisations like Vibha and Foundation for Excellence have proven that it is possible. 

Foundation for Excellence does have a small but mighty staff in India, but their U.S. operation is entirely volunteer-run. Yet, despite that, or perhaps because of that, it keeps growing every year. Who are these volunteers? One example is Venk Shukla, a current FFE board member who has served on that body for an incredible 28 years. (He was Board President for 18). Minoo Gupta is the current Volunteer Board President, a role she has held for ten years while serving as Volunteer Vice-Chair and Treasurer of IPA. 

Consider Vibha, which is led by Ashwini Kumar, as energetic and positive a person as any I have ever met. Vibha is entirely volunteer-run in the U.S. and nearly so in India. For the second year in a row, it led all organisations participating in India Giving Day in terms of the number of unique donors they attracted: 414. (Read this article about their achievements and those of other participating groups.) It is a volunteer-driven social catalyst that seeds grows and scales solutions to systemic problems affecting children. Its main goal is to transform the quality of public education by scaling proven models of motivation, learning, training and using technology.

Foundation for Excellence does have a small but mighty staff in India, but their U.S. operation is entirely volunteer-run. Yet, despite that, or perhaps because of that, it keeps growing every year. Who are these volunteers? One example is Venk Shukla, a current FFE board member who has served on that body for an incredible 28 years. (He was Board President for 18). Minoo Gupta is the current Volunteer Board President, a role she has held for ten years while serving as Volunteer Vice-Chair and Treasurer of IPA. 

FFE provides scholarships to low-income students in India to pursue degrees in engineering, medicine, pharmacy, and law. Since its inception 29 years ago, FFE has awarded $53.4 million in 97,813 scholarships to 33,633 deserving students, helping them become skilled citizens in India and to transform their generation entirely. During the 2022-23 academic year alone, FFE provided $7.4 million in 13,579 scholarships, with 4,018 of these awarded to female scholars. 

One of the most impressive things about FFE is how it engages beneficiaries as volunteers and donors. After completing their studies, most of its scholars contribute enough back to the organisation to fund two additional scholarships. One of those who has gone way beyond that benchmark is FFE alumni Ranjith Kagathi, who also serves as a board member, mentor and advocate for FFE at Google.

Success Models in Involving Youth in Volunteerism

Perhaps the most inspirational examples of volunteerism, especially of youth volunteerism, came from the recently completed India Giving Day campaign. We had been trying to encourage young people to engage in peer-to-peer fundraising in our inaugural campaign but without much success. This year, we had a major breakthrough. 

Heart to Heart Foundation — an impressive non-profit organisation working towards improving healthcare accessibility, reducing healthcare disparities, and providing comprehensive care for a better future — attracted 74 peer-to-peer fundraisers in its first India Giving Day Campaign. 

Among them, one of the most successful was Srithan Devrashetty. At just 13 years old, Srithan’s passion for aiding children with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) ignited a remarkable fundraising journey. His dedication has attracted significant support from friends and family, resulting in an impressive fundraising total of 74 donors and $2,512 raised. 

To understand how this middle school student achieved such success, it is important to understand his motivation. He found himself deeply moved by the stories of how the H2H Foundation saves the lives of children afflicted with heart disease. The plight of parents anxiously awaiting life-saving surgeries for their children struck a chord deep within him. His visit to an H2H partner hospital turned his life around and struck a chord. Witnessing firsthand the resilience of young hearts and the profound relief on the faces of families post-surgery solidified his resolve to make a difference. During the India Giving Day campaign, he rallied support from his family and friends, driven by the desire to ensure that no child should suffer needlessly due to ill health or congenital heart disease (CHD). 

Volunteers are critical players in the work of many nonprofits, and their donations of their time, expertise, influence, and networks are essential to creating a better future for humanity and the planet. 

Another example is Preetham Reddy, a 26-year-old young adult who is a poignant and successful campaigner for the H2H Foundation. Preetham’s life changed dramatically when he was diagnosed with CHD and experienced physical weakness. Surgery became his only hope, and fortunately, he had a successful operation by some of the best doctors in the country. Thankful for his second chance, Preetham made it his mission to give back by providing free heart surgeries to others in need. The transformative impact of their own story, coupled with his compassion to pay it forward and save more lives, deeply resonated with supporters of the cause. He brought in 85 donors who contributed $5,166.

And let us not forget Nitin Charles, a 19-year-old Rutgers University student who raised $1,135 from 61 unique donors for his favourite charity, the Vicente Ferrar Foundation USA. VFF-USA is the American arm of a leading Spanish foundation that works in areas such as the inclusion of the disabled, education, women’s empowerment, and community health in India. His work single-handedly made VFF-USA’s campaign a smashing success in attracting new donors. 

In short, volunteers are critical players in the work of many nonprofits, and their donations of their time, expertise, influence, and networks are essential to creating a better future for humanity and the planet.