Where are our Volunteers?

Every two years, since the early 2000s, the US Census Bureau, in partnership with AmeriCorps, releases a study tracking volunteerism in the US. This year’s report, released in late January, found that the national rate of volunteering through organizations dropped from 30% of all Americans in 2019 to 23% in 2021—the largest drop since the study began in 2002.  

While the pandemic is certainly a significant contributing factor in this decline, the study points out that these downward trends were already at play, well before 2020. For example, the hours Americans 16 years old and older volunteered fell from 52 hours in 2002 to 40 in 2017 to 26 in 2019—all years prior to the pandemic.  

What is the cause of this decline? Probably a combination of factors from declining religious affiliation (or participation in social clubs, associations, and other groups) to the aging of the Baby Boomer generation. Moreover, Americans are having fewer children now than 20 years ago which actually equates to fewer adults volunteering. Adults with children under 18 volunteer at a higher rate (30%) than those without children in their household (21%).  

Nonprofits depend on volunteers to deliver their services, assist their paid staff, lend their expertise, and ultimately contribute financially to the causes that they support with their time and talent. A recent Fidelity Charitable study on the role of volunteering in philanthropy suggests that Americans who volunteer give an average of 10 times more money to charity than people who do not volunteer! Thus, a decline in volunteerism represents a huge problem for the nonprofit sector.  

What can nonprofits do? They can’t reverse the national trends like Americans having fewer children or the Baby Boomers aging, but they can be more intentional and strategic in engaging their volunteers and thus, retaining and perhaps even growing them.

Here are some practical ideas:

1) Be creative. Give your volunteers opportunities to serve your organization in different, perhaps even nonconventional ways—offering digital volunteering through virtual meetings or opportunities for volunteers to learn a new skill or develop a talent. Make even so-called menial tasks like stuffing envelopes fun, social, and rewarding. And of course, always offer food!

2) Be flexible. While there are practical limits to an organization’s ability to be accommodating, work as much as possible with your volunteers to adapt to their schedules and timelines. Not all people can volunteer the same amount of time so find both short-term and long-term opportunities.

3) Be equitable. Don’t simply schedule volunteer opportunities when persons of wealth and privilege can take part such as during the workday when those who must work cannot participate. Seek out opportunities where everyone has access to volunteer opportunities through time, transportation, training and can bring their unique talents to assist the nonprofit.

4) Be thankful. Volunteering is less about getting recognition tokens than it is seeing the positive impact of the organization. So, thank volunteers for making that impact possible.  

When a nonprofit views volunteers as true partners in changing the world, volunteers will in turn be more inclined to continue if not increase their service and deepen their level of engagement with the organization and its cause. The only way to combat the declining number of volunteers is with intentionality.

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