One of the biggest challenges faced by non-profit and charitable organizations is finding volunteers to help them to do the work to achieve their goals. Recognizing this, many non-profit organizations have shifted a significant portion of their time and effort to develop strategies to recruit, retain and motivate volunteers versus the traditional focus of trying to figure out ways to get more funding. The quest is challenging and few organizations can legitimately claim they have a proven mechanism to engage and retain volunteers. Well, except for one: the Framework Foundation, an organization that spurs volunteerism — not for itself, but for the benefit of other organizations — might just have the perfect solution.

Anil Patel, the Executive Director of the Framework Foundation, has created an innovative program called the Timeraiser. This annual event has proven wildly successful in encouraging people to donate their time to worthy volunteer opportunities. If you are skeptical, read on, but also check it out for yourself as the event will be held in Toronto’s famed Distillery District Fermenting Cellar on Saturday, April 5th, 2008. Doors open at 7pm.

What is a Timeraiser? Well, much like the word suggests, it is similar in some respects to a fundraiser, only the focus is on raising time, not money. But there are some fundamental differences that make this event unique.

Firstly, the Timeraiser has traditionally secured a venue that appeals to the creative and curious nature of people. Previous events were held in the CBC atrium and the Berkeley Church, both unique and culturally significant spaces and both vastly different in look and feel from a conventional conference centre.

Secondly, a select number of volunteer organizations are there, on-site, each with their own kiosk politely showcasing their non-profit organization and discreetly advertising the areas in which they need help. The opportunities range from board members and CFO’s all the way down to people actually getting their hands dirty planting trees in a conservation area. This is extremely appealing given most people don’t volunteer their time because they don’t know what opportunities exist. No excuses at this event.

Lastly, the prospective volunteers bid their time as part of a silent auction for an opportunity to win eclectic artwork produced by local artisans. There are no signed Wayne Gretzky jerseys or Chris Bosh shoes at this auction. Local art, produced by some of the brightest local artisans, both amateur and professional, is purchased by the Framework Foundation at fair market value using donations received from corporate partners. In conventional silent auctions, where high value items might demand $1,000 to $2,000, the Timeraiser might see a particular piece of art fetch 150 hours of volunteer time. For the contestant with the winning bid, he or she is required to self-report and fulfill their volunteer commitment with an organization of their choice over a 12-month period. Successful fulfillment means they will be granted their beloved artwork at next year’s event. If they fall short, the second-place bidder, assuming he or she has fulfilled their pledge amount, is awarded the artwork.

So what does all this translate into? For all its simplicity, this model is an extremely innovative way to bring together prospective volunteers and organizations seeking volunteer assistance. But there is much more.

At a recent Social Economy Centre workshop, Laurie Mook, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, presented her research illustrating just how much value volunteers add to an organization. Using Canadian Crossroads International (CCI) as an example, Laurie illustrated that the monetary value of volunteerism in many non-profit and charitable organizations is much more significant than the average person often realizes. At CCI, it was estimated that the volunteer contributions over a 15-month period was worth about $3.8M, almost equal to the $3.9M received in actual revenues. When combined, the total market value of “top-line” contribution equals $7.7M.

Now extrapolate this algorithm to the Timeraiser: nearly 300 people commit to providing a minimum of 20 volunteer hours a year (just by attending the event you are required to give 20 hours of volunteer time) plus the 40 or so lucky volunteers who place winning bids near 150 hours, and you get 12,000 pledged hours. Using a rate of $20/hour, you conceivably have an economic contribution of $240,000 generated in just one exciting evening. Amazing.

Don Duval

Don Duval is the CEO of the Northern Centre of Advanced Technology, a regional innovation centre focused on working with community partners to help start and accelerate the growth of innovative companies. He is a founding MaRS Ambassador – speaking around the world on topics related to innovation, commercialization and entrepreneurship. See more…