April marks National Volunteer Month – an opportunity to celebrate the impact volunteers have on our communities and encourage active participation among all generations.
In the U.S., volunteerism has waxed and waned through the decades. It spiked after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the trend didn’t last as volunteerism has been on the decline for the last two decades.
A recent U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps survey found volunteering with a formal nonprofit dropped to 23.2% from 2019 to 2021 – a 7% dip. It’s the largest decrease since AmeriCorps and the Census Bureau started collecting data in 2002. To be clear, the contributions are sizeable: more than 60 million U.S. volunteers serving an estimated 4.1 billion hours and generating an economic value of $122.9 billion. But it’s not enough to meet the demands of many nonprofits that are struggling to provide vital community services.
What’s Behind the U.S. Volunteer Shortage?
COVID took a major toll on volunteerism. During the pandemic, many nonprofits cut back on in-person services and no longer needed their volunteer base. Also, people stopped volunteering for fear of exposure, particularly retirees and other high-risk populations. As a result, many nonprofits lost their volunteer connections, and it’s been difficult for them to get these people back or find replacements.
Tough economic conditions have also played a role. They’ve not only increased demand for nonprofit services but have forced many would-be volunteers to back away from lending their time to focus on their own needs or take on additional employment to afford rising costs for rent, utilities and food. It’s a double whammy – nonprofits straining to do more with less help.
Generational shifts are also contributing to the shortage. According to a University of Maryland study, today’s young adults, ages 22 to 35, are more likely to delay or not seek traditional adult milestones such as owning a home, getting married and having children. These milestones typically coincide with charitable behaviors such as volunteering. Even young adults who meet these milestones are often volunteering and giving less than previous generations, the study finds. The economy also factors in here: with higher costs of living, young adults may be working multiple jobs, so they don’t have much time to give back.
How Can Nonprofits Attract and Retain Volunteers?
If your organization relies on volunteers and you’re struggling to fill those needs, there may be help at the local level. In Detroit, for example, Share Detroit developed an online platform that connects nonprofits and volunteers. Nonprofits can list their volunteer needs on the website, and those interested in volunteering can search for opportunities where their skill sets and interests align. As of December 2022, 320+ nonprofits were making use of this resource, and the website attracted more than 63,000 visitors.
Here are some additional thought starters to help you get back on track.
Appeal to Younger Generations
Traditional approaches to volunteer recruitment often don’t resonate with young people who want more of a say in how their time and energy creates sustained impact.
One nonprofit, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, has found success by turning things upside-down. The group was flooded with requests when it held a youth leadership summit, inviting 18- to 35-year-old participants to volunteer their time and develop solutions to protect the oceans. Their “bottom-up” approach encourages volunteers across the globe to identify potential projects in their communities. The organization then provides the resources to help those volunteers make an impact.
Other nonprofits are simply making recruiting activities more socially engaging, holding informal, entertaining events that appeal to young adults and encourage them to bring friends.
Focus on Volunteer Management
While many nonprofits struggle with staffing issues, you can’t effectively recruit, train and retain volunteers without directing resources to volunteer management. Ideally, a dedicated staff member oversees key activities:
- Developing a clear understanding of volunteer needs, including skill and time requirements
- Devising recruitment strategies that appeal to targeted audiences
- Creating efficient onboarding/training procedures
- Managing volunteer scheduling and fulfillment, setting up clear communication procedures
- Building and maintaining relationships with volunteers, showing appreciation for their efforts and connecting those efforts to organizational impact
Grants can help offset the costs associated with these efforts. AmeriCorps, for example, recently opened its annual Volunteer Generation Fund grant competition to award $8 million+ to help nonprofits recruit and retain volunteers. The application deadline is May 16 at 5 p.m.
Pursue Strategic Corporate Partnerships
More and more, corporations are moving away from traditional employee volunteer programs to more purposeful partnerships with nonprofits in the communities where they operate. They identify a community need where with the right match of skills, a team of employees can work with a nonprofit to help solve an organizational challenge or deliver specialized resources.
It’s worth researching corporations in your community to identify potential partnerships, looking for companies with social responsibility goals and skill sets that complement your organization’s mission. Partnerships like these can build sustained relationships, providing nonprofits with invaluable resources and a potentially steady supply of skilled volunteers.