In running a local car show for two decades, Ed Ingle developed a specific set of skills that are worth their weight in gold to Potential Inc., a nonprofit in Newtown that works with people of all ages who have autism and other developmental disabilities. 

For four of the last five years, Potential has staged a car show. (Last year’s was cancelled because of the pandemic.) And every year, the proceeds are put toward a different need. One year it was a new playground for Potential’s Springtime School, a private elementary school for children with autism. Another year it was a van for the school. This year, they’ll go toward expanding Potential’s services.

While the event is coordinated by Hillary Sawyer, MHA, MPA, Potential’s Donor Relationship Manager, it’s mostly run by a band of trusted volunteers like Ingle, who oversees registration and judging.

“Volunteering with the Potential car show allows me to stay involved without having the responsibility of running the whole event,” Ingle says.

How a nonprofit benefits

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the nonprofit sector, much of which was still recovering from the last major recession 10 years earlier. Then and now, volunteers became an essential resource for tackling a new existence where funding would be limited, but services would be in greater demand than ever before.

Volunteers have always eased financial pressures by helping nonprofits raise money. Their commitment to an organization’s mission makes them convincing advocates for the cause. Volunteers are also likely to donate to the nonprofit at which they serve. But now they’re just as prized by nonprofits for their professional skills. Volunteers can provide technology services, help with strategic planning, or handle logistics for a car show, all without being paid.

At Potential, a development committee that’s comprised of Sawyer and several longtime volunteers and donors plans the organization’s outreach efforts and three annual volunteer events: a spring cleaning of the school and playground, a fundraising gala, and the car show — which drew about 100 volunteers for the last edition before the pandemic, according to Sawyer.

Because of the nature of its programming, Sawyer says Potential has traditionally been less reliant on the professional expertise of its volunteers than other nonprofits, but that may change, she says, as the organization continues to grow. For now, volunteers are supporting that growth by helping Potential save money.

Last year, over the course of several months, volunteers painted the interior of the nonprofit’s 3,500-square foot building, working in four-hour shifts on the weekends. Sawyer estimates that, for a professional to do it, it could have cost $10,000, which is as much as 50% of what Potential raises through fundraising in some years.

Beyond handling many of the operations for its various fundraisers, Sawyer says volunteers are very often Potential’s best ambassadors, helping the nonprofit stay connected to, and grow in, the community. They know the community’s important players, and, Sawyer says, “because we’re focused on autism, many of our volunteers have a personal connection to our cause, which really helps them talk about what we’re doing.”

How a volunteer benefits

Volunteering is not a one-way avenue. The volunteers themselves can reap a number of surprising benefits from their generosity, including improved physical and mental health and even a sense that they have more time. (Which is similar to the findings of another study which showed that people who donate tend to feel wealthier.)

Increasingly, volunteering has also become a means to enhance your professional skills and experience. Industry insiders began to notice a shift about 10 years ago. Previously, recent graduates might seek unpaid internships to help distinguish themselves in the job market, but skilled professionals largely expected to pad their résumés on the job. However, as nonprofits started trying to take better advantage of skilled volunteers, more employers reported weighing volunteer work in evaluating job candidates.

The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic sent unemployment rates soaring to historic levels. It also strained many nonprofits’ ability to provide their services and dimmed, at least in the short term, their fundraising prospects. In such an environment, it’s easy to see more volunteers applying their professional skills on behalf of understaffed and underfunded nonprofits, or looking to develop new ones through their volunteer work.

Maybe most critically after more than a year of widespread isolation, volunteering has also been shown to build empathy and strengthen social bonds. The pandemic has redefined what home means to a lot of us. Volunteering offers an opportunity to reshape your perspective again, this time for the better. Rather than walls closing in, a volunteer can tear them down and grow their definition of home to encompass an entire community.

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