Nonprofit Accounting Basics

Reporting the Total Number of Volunteers on the Form 990

Note: Articles published before January 1, 2017 may be out of date. We are in the process of updating this content.

Author: 

A. Michael Gellman

Sustainability Education 4 Nonprofits

Nonprofits have only a few touchpoints where a lasting impression can be made in the blink of an eye. These opportunities must be given careful thought so they can be optimized and leveraged before they disappear. The total number of volunteers reported on Page 1, Line 6 of the Form 990 is one of those key touchpoints that most organizations take for granted.

Good first impressions are precious. They often come from brief encounters that might not grab our attention. Page 1 of the Form 990 is one of the main drivers of a nonprofit organization’s first impression with the public. Each line on Page 1 of Form 990 provides an opportunity to tell your organization’s unique story and set a positive tone for how your organization is perceived.

Thoughtful reporting of the number of volunteers on Page 1, Line 6, of the Form 990, along with a detailed explanation on Schedule O, speaks volumes about a nonprofit’s culture, impact, and outreach. However, this important line item is usually overlooked.

I believe one of the reasons nonprofits don’t give this line item the thought it deserves is because the Form 990 tells the user to “estimate if necessary.” This gives the false impression the request for information is not important, which often leads to under-reporting of the total number of volunteers for the reporting period.

The IRS instructions for this line item provide excellent clues as to how to compile and report the total number of volunteers. The instructions begin by directing you to “enter the number of volunteers, full-time and part-time, including volunteer members of the organization's governing body.”

The mention of “part-time” emphasizes that all volunteer efforts, even small ones, should be counted. Additionally, the term “governing body” underscores that most governing positions are filled by volunteers. Do not miss the opportunity to include volunteers from your Board of Directors, committees, task forces, and other working groups like honorary boards and a council of past presidents.

The instructions also include this powerful suggestion that most nonprofits disregard:

“Organizations can, but aren't required to, provide an explanation on Schedule O (Form 990 or 990-EZ) of how this number was determined, the number of hours those volunteers served during the tax year, and the types of services or benefits provided by the organization's volunteers.”

A larger comprehensive total number of volunteers is even more impactful when accompanied by a detailed explanation in Schedule O describing how they served the organization complimented by an estimate of the total number of hours volunteers served. It’s so powerful when you can make a broad statement such as “350 volunteers provided over 8,000 hours of service.”

To make sure you capture the most complete number of volunteers, it is helpful to assemble a checklist of key areas where volunteers interact with your organization. A sample checklist could look as follows:

Governing Bodies (Board of Directors, committees, task forces, etc.)

Program Assistance (tutors, mentors, ambassadors, docents, teaching assistants, etc.)

Staff Assistance (administrative work, facilities management, exhibits, grounds and gardens maintenance, warehouse operations, etc.)

Fundraising Assistance (events, donor communications, etc.)

Outreach Assistance (member and chapter/affiliate communications, joint programs with other organizations, etc.)

Other Areas Unique to Your Organization

Planning Tip – Consider expanding efforts to document volunteer efforts to record services performed, hours of effort, and the general skill background of your volunteers. In addition to providing valuable information for Form 990 reporting, these records will help staff to match volunteer proficiencies with organizational needs, and thereby utilize volunteer resources in the best possible manner. Compiling information on volunteer efforts will have many benefits far beyond the Form 990. This information can be a badge of honor and be communicated in annual reports, fundraising communications, grant applications, and sponsorship solicitations, to name a few.