Huh? Fundraising zombie volunteers cost money?

As most of you know, I’ve been talking this week about the City of Elgin’s upcoming Nightmare on Chicago Street special event and the role that area non-profits have been asked to play. While I won’t re-hash the story for you here, I encourage you to go back and read Monday’s post titled “Beware of Fundraising Zombies” and yesterday’s post titled “Fundraising zombies ‘doing the math’.” These posts along with what I write today focus on special events and how non-profits need to be especially careful about measuring “return on investment” (ROI) and thinking through how many events are too many.

So, while emailing back and forth with a very smart and dear friend of mine yesterday about this topic, they said:

“Come-on, Erik! What is the big deal with non-profits recruiting some of their volunteers to help the city out with their day-of-event operations? Sure, the ROI is poor, but there really isn’t any cost related to doing this. Right?”

As you’ve guessed, my response was “No, you’re wrong. There is a cost that no one is considering.” and thus the final chapter of my zombie fundraising posts was born.  Here is the explanation:

  • When a person agrees to volunteer, they are making a contribution of time to that particular non-profit agency. Right?
  • Most people consider “gifts of time” to be more valuable than their “gifts of money”. I’ve heard people say this often, and I know you have, too.
  • There are studies that show the “value of a volunteer’s time” is calculated to be $21.36 per hour. Don’t believe me? Click here to see the research for yourself.
  • The cost for a non-profit organization to build the necessary infrastructure to run a volunteer management program is calculated to be $300 per volunteer per year according to a study by Pubic/Private Ventures titled “Making the Most of Volunteers”. For some organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, these costs go up to $1,000 per mentoring match. Click here to review the evidence yourself.
  • In my experience, a person’s volunteer hours are not an endless pool that non-profits can keep tapping over and over again. While it isn’t set firmly in concrete, most people have a limit to how much time they are willing to give. If you follow this logic, then recruiting a volunteer to work the zombie event means the non-profit is possibly forgoing future “contributions of time” from those volunteers for the charity’s projects back home.
  • Applying the concepts of ROI and “opportunity cost” that were discussed in yesterday’s blog post, let’s look at this entire thing from a different angle. Each charity receives 100 tickets that they sell for $5.00 each, resulting in $500 gross income. Let’s just say a participating non-profit recruits FIVE VOLUNTEERS who each contribute FIVE HOURS on the day of event. To put this into financial terms . . . 5 volunteers multiplied by 5 hours each and then multiplied by $21.36 per hour equals $536.00. This doesn’t even include allocating the costs associated with maintaining the agency’s volunteer management infrastructure.  It also doesn’t include the time associated with ticket selling if the agency asked volunteers to help sell its share of tickets to this event.

Drumroll please? My conclusion here is that non-profit agency gross $500 in ticket sales, but invest $536.00 of volunteer time as part of this special event collaboration. While I won’t go so far as to say the agency just lost $36.00 (even though I am really tempted to draw that conclusion), I think you can agree that this investment is looking less attractive by the second. Right?

Let me just be clear. I support this event and think everyone should attend. Who can’t agree that zombies and Halloween are fun. For the third time this week, I am encouraging everyone to buy their tickets at the door. By doing so, you’ll send a message to your favorite non-profit organization that you love them and won’t support this kind of counterintuitive fundraising behavior.

Let me doubly clear. I don’t think the City of Elgin is trying to hurt the non-profit sector. I know that this idea of involving non-profits in revenue sharing for this event was borne out of the desire to be collaborative and helpful during tough economic times. Additionally, it is the city’s economic development mission to drive foot traffic downtown to benefit its downtown merchants. This event should do exactly that, which is why I tip my hat to the city for trying to do “something”.

All I am saying is that non-profit organizations need to start looking at fundraising in a different light because their decision-making on these issues can and does have a real impact. Everyone — including the non-profit agencies, the city, donors, agency staff and bord volunteers — plays a role in doing this.

How does your non-profit organization evaluate its fundraising and resource development activities to ensure what you’re doing makes sense? Do you have a real and engaged resource development committee? What does that committee do? What efforts and considerations go into creating your agency’s annual written resource development plan? Do you have one? What does it look like? How much of these activities are ‘put on staff’ compared to collaborating with board volunteers, fundraising volunteers and donors to help find these hidden facts and answers?

There has been decent activity over the last few days with regards to usage of the “comment box” for this blog. Let’s keep up that awesome effort. It will take you less than 30-seconds to type your thoughts into the comment box below. Please do so because we can all learn from each other!

Here is to your health! (And I hope this will be the last zombie inspired post for a while . . . Have a Happy Halloween! In the spirit of Halloween fun, my gift to you is this YouTube video of President George W. Bush talking about zombies. LOL Enjoy!)

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847|


  1. Agree that a little math goes a long way. There are so many priorities, nonprofits must choose carefully.

    It’s tough to say “no” to these types of requests. Especially when it comes from an agency/donor/friend with great intentions.

    But sometimes it’s the best thing to do for the cause.

    1. Thanks, Meredith! I just subscribed to your blog’s RSS feed. I loved the post where you discussed Seth Godin’s opinion on Gala-based events. Nice job! NFPs really need to do the math differently than they have been doing it. While a few key special events with crisp and focused objectives with great ROI should be included in agency’s annual RD Plans, I see far too many rubber chicken dinners or “break-even” events where objectives weren’t met and money was lost. Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts. I hope you will continue to do so. 😉

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