A Gift Beyond Measure: OCF Volunteer Impact

Last year, on the cusp of its 50th anniversary, Oregon Community Foundation delivered more than $321 million in grants and scholarships to nearly 4,100 Oregon nonprofits and 3,025 students. It is the largest charitable foundation in Oregon and the sixth largest among more than 830 community foundations in the United States, ranked by total assets.  

Numbers that large can’t help but command attention. But a different, less visible currency than cash is just as vital to OCF’s impact on Oregon communities: The gift of volunteer time. 

Each year, more than 1,800 volunteers help further OCF’s mission to improve the lives of all Oregonians.  

If OCF volunteers were a city, they would be more populous than Cannon Beach, John Day, or Heppner. If they were musicians, they would be seven times the size of Oregon State University’s marching band. There are 18 times as many OCF volunteers, living and serving in communities throughout the state, as there are OCF employees.  

OCF volunteers review thousands of scholarship candidates and grant applications from nonprofits; serve on dozens of advisory committees; and help guide and decide OCF’s strategic priorities as members of regional leadership councils and OCF board of directors. Collectively, they donate 16,500 hours annually — equivalent to one person working full-time, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, for nearly eight years. Those hours are worth nearly half a million dollars to OCF, based on Independent Sector’s estimated value of volunteer time.  

Sonja McKenzie

Sonja McKenzie

But volunteers give considerably more to Oregon and to OCF than can be counted in dollars and cents. Each brings a unique blend of skills, knowledge of their communities, and life experience. Students, parents, retirees, business owners, activists and artists — all infuse OCF with energy, advocacy, and love for their unique parts of the state. Volunteers are no less than the foundation’s lifeblood, enabling OCF to create opportunities and change lives by the thousands throughout Oregon, decade after decade. 

“The value that volunteers bring to OCF is just staggering,” says Sonja McKenzie, OCF’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Volunteers. “Giving your time is an invaluable investment.”  

Specialists in their communities 

As an example, in 2022, OCF received nearly 1,000 applications for Community Grants, perhaps the foundation’s best-known open grant program. Community Grants are awarded to  nonprofits that respond to emerging, pressing needs throughout the state. The program awarded more than $8.7 million in new community grants, including $2.4 million in donor funds, to directly support 371 nonprofit organizations in all 36 Oregon counties. 

About 200 OCF volunteers serve as Community Grant evaluators, who play a critical early role in a deliberative, multi-stage process that determines which applicants receive funding. If you can think of a nonprofit in your community that serves kids, families, education, the arts, or the environment — and which engages with populations that have been disproportionately impacted by social, economic and racial injustices and inequities — there’s a good chance it has received a Community Grant that was evaluated and championed by local OCF volunteers. 

OCF typically assigns volunteers to review applications from their own communities and regions to capitalize on their knowledge of local needs and assets and their familiarity with local nonprofits.  

“We look at volunteers as specialists in their communities. They are leading the work in an advisory capacity, bringing their regional and local perspective, and informing what kind of programming is best suited for their community,” says McKenzie, who since joining OCF in 2019 has helped to increase and diversify the foundation’s volunteer corps and strengthen the infrastructure that recruits, trains, and supports them.  

Showing up for Oregon neighbors 

Over several weeks during each grant review cycle, volunteer grant evaluators throughout the state each donate about 15 to 40 hours to the process. They read grant applications and meet in small groups to discuss them, visit nonprofits and interview their leaders, and make recommendations to staff. OCF board members make final funding decisions. 

Jackie Wirz

Jackie Wirz

Jackie Wirz has evaluated grants for numerous organizations, from small local nonprofits to the National Science Foundation, as well as for OCF. If organizers don’t do the advance work necessary to ensure the process goes smoothly, it can be a difficult experience, she says.  

“OCF does a fantastic job of creating the infrastructure for grant reviewers, both new and experienced, to understand the approach and the tools that are being used to evaluate the applications, to stick to agendas, and to make sure the resources we need are always available,” says Wirz, a nonprofit executive in Portland. 

The details of a grant evaluator’s role can appear unglamorous: note-taking, Zoom calls, spreadsheets. Yet these volunteers represent a cornerstone of civic life in the United States since its founding, one that has long been considered essential to a thriving democratic society: Community members showing up, unpaid, to do the work of improving life for other people.  

As Kerry Tymchuk, Executive Director of the Oregon Historical Society, said in 2013, “Ever since the days of the pioneer-era barn raises, philanthropy and neighbor-helping-neighbor have been proud parts of Oregon’s history.”  

In return for showing up for their fellow Oregonians, OCF grant evaluators get the opportunity to dig deeply into challenges facing their regions; be inspired by the work of local nonprofits and their proposed solutions; and through their funding recommendations, make a lasting impact on their neighbors and communities.  

Emma Koontz

Emma Koontz

“In our world right now, there's a lot going wrong. But in this process, you see that there’s a lot that’s going right, too,” says Emma Koontz, a junior at the University of Oregon who is a grant evaluator for the Portland area. “It’s a good way to build your faith in those people and organizations that are doing good things, and advocate for them, and be a part of making progress on big problems, a little bit at a time.”  

Leading in multiple roles  

The number of Community Grant evaluators has doubled since 2021, the result of recruitment efforts led by McKenzie. But the largest number of OCF volunteers — more than 1,000 of them — play another role, helping to determine which Oregon students receive the $11.6 million in scholarships (2021 total) that OCF donors fund annually.  

Volunteers also serve as advisors on key foundation committees, councils and boards; many fill multiple roles at once. They have also been integral to an array of OCF special projects and strategic initiatives, including GO Kids, which funds local nonprofits that are working to close the opportunity gap; Black Student Success, in which OCF works with community partners to attack the root causes of education inequity for Black students; and the Latino Partnership – a 20 year program that addresses challenges facing the state’s Latino/x community.  

It is up to McKenzie and her OCF colleagues to find all of these people — then to interview them, train them, support them, and keep them coming back. A certified volunteer administrator (CVA), McKenzie previously oversaw statewide volunteer management for Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette. She herself is an avid volunteer, as an elected director of the Parkrose School District in Portland and past co-chair of Dress for Success Oregon.  

Disrupting the concept of a ‘traditional’ volunteer 

McKenzie and other OCF staff search for volunteers at professional networking events; in colleges and universities; through referrals from current OCF volunteers, staff, neighbors and friends; and by frequently posting opportunities to OCF’s social media channels.  

As is the case at similar organizations nationally, OCF volunteers tend to be disproportionately older (including many retirees), higher-income, and white, compared to the state population. While this demographic has been and continues to be critical to the foundation’s success, “we want to be mindful that there are other communities out there that also have a lot to offer,” McKenzie says. 

To find volunteers who reflect the full diversity of Oregon communities — in terms of age, region, race and ethnicity, occupation, income, ability level, gender, and sexual orientation, among other factors — OCF deploys a range of tactics: Showing up in places where diverse candidates gather, lowering barriers to participate, even changing how OCF talks about volunteering.  

“First and foremost, we’re intentionally disrupting the concept of what is a ‘traditional’ volunteer. We’re doing that through targeted community engagement and recruitment — approaching diverse communities and looking for folks with a variety of lived experiences, who can bring those perspectives to their work as volunteers,” McKenzie says.  

Wirz had known about OCF for years before she began volunteering in 2021. After Wirz met Carly Brown, an OCF program officer for community engagement, at a networking event sponsored by Partners in Diversity, she decided to sign up. 

“As a bipolar minority woman in science, I just appreciated it so much that they were invested in the success of professionals of color from around the state,” Wirz says. “That’s when I decided that volunteering for OCF was absolutely something that I needed to do.”   

“We were eager for Jackie to become a grant evaluator because of her experience running a nonprofit organization,” Brown says. “What we learned is that she has a real knack for determining if a grant program’s priorities are reflected in an application. She brought her curiosity and attention to detail to the role, and that’s a huge contribution.” 

OCF has lowered the financial and time barriers that keep people from volunteering by providing subscriptions to online meeting platforms, covering the costs of printed materials, and by making meeting times more flexible, so volunteers can attend without missing work. The foundation is also exploring how other philanthropies and nonprofits use honorariums to enable more people, at a wider range of income levels, to participate.  

Making a direct impact  

Even the language around volunteering is changing, to be more inviting and compelling to a more diverse mix of Oregonians. In conversations, McKenzie often replaces the word “volunteer” with “advisor,” and emphasizes OCF’s need to hear from people in every kind of community who can bring their local knowledge, personal perspectives, and life experience to grant evaluation and other roles.  

People of color, especially, often ask McKenzie to describe exactly how donating their time will help improve the lives of Black, Indigenous, Latino/x and other historically marginalized groups in Oregon. 

“They want to know that they won’t be part of a big machine,” she says.  

“I tell them, with your recommendations about what work is getting funded, you’re going to see a direct impact. People want to see that we’re truly looking at marginalized communities and organizations and supporting them. When they understand that OCF is doing that, they want to be a part of it.”