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Finding the Cash to Reimburse Volunteer Expenses

by Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc.

Everyone agrees that, in an ideal world, volunteers should be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses incurred while contributing their time (parking, meals, child care, whatever). Yet often organizations cannot seem to find money in the budget to pay for such costs. In the long run, we ought to insist on proper planning to create a line item for what is actually a small expense category, but in the short run it's possible to raise the funds without a lot of effort.

First, do the math and determine how much money is really needed. Not every volunteer will incur expenses nor want to be reimbursed, though it ought to be an offer that is extended to everyone, not just those in financial need. In most organizations, a fund of perhaps five hundred to a thousand dollars (or its equivalent in your country) will stretch for over a year. So maybe a basic, old-fashioned fundraiser can do the trick -- but give it a twist and let the effort yield more results than just cash. Here are a few ideas:

  • Challenge volunteers to come up with a fundraiser for themselves as a get-acquainted with each other opportunity. So, they run a flea market in the organization's parking lot on a Saturday, getting rid of their garage and attic junk, meeting volunteers from other shifts, letting the public know about volunteer opportunities with you (hang a big banner proclaiming the reason for the flea market), and ending the day with a volunteer reimbursement fund.

  • Challenge paid staff to come up with a fundraiser they might do to fill the reimbursement account and demonstrate their thanks tangibly to volunteers.

  • Create a fact sheet outlining exactly what volunteers contribute to your agency each year (please go beyond the tally of hours!). Then note how little cash would enable more volunteers to participate at no out-of-pocket expense. Take this to local businesses or funders and request a modest grant of $500 to $1000, designated as the "Volunteer Expense Fund." In fact, if one donor covers the entire cost, name the fund after them!

  • Propose to your executives that every grant proposal submitted include a small percentage openly designated to supporting volunteers. This would impress the funding source and add very little onto the requested amount. For example, one-half of one percent (.005) would give you $50 for every $10,000 requested. A $100, 000 grant would net $500, probably sufficient to cover the expenses of new volunteers you'll need to recruit to support the project.

  • Ask a community organization such as a service club to adopt your program, specifically the Volunteer Expense Fund, and commit to contributing a certain amount each year from their ongoing fundraising efforts as "leverage money." In other words, for a small donation to the Volunteer Expense Fund, they can watch their cash multiply in impact as it enables more volunteers to give time and talent.

  • The point is that it might take more energy to complain about the lack of money for reimbursing volunteer expenses than to just go out and raise it. And if your administrators balk at this idea, maybe it will shame them into doing what they should have done in the first place: budget appropriate costs to support volunteers.


About the Author: Susan J. Ellis is President of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism. She founded the Philadelphia-based company in 1977 and since that time has assisted clients throughout North America (48 states and 5 provinces), Europe (8 countries), Asia (3 countries), Latin America and Australia to create or strengthen their volunteer corps. The year 2002 marked Energize's 25th anniversary.

Susan is the author or co-author of eleven books, including From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success and The Volunteer Recruitment Book - several of which have been translated into Japanese, Taiwanese, French and Italian. All her books can be found in the online bookstore. From 1981 to 1987 she was Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Volunteer Administration. She has written more than 90 articles on volunteer management for dozens of publications and writes the national bi-monthly column, "On Volunteers," for The NonProfit Times.

Please visit Energize web site, a cornucopia of over 1000 pages of information especially for leaders of volunteers. Call for a FREE catalog of Energize materials: (800)395-9800 [in Philadelphia (215) 438-8342], or fax (215) 428-0434. Or write to Energize at: 5450 Wissahickon Ave, Box C-13, Philadelphia, PA 19144.

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