Why and How Charities Should Revive a Declining but Vital Resource … Volunteers – The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Susan Cory, who coordinates volunteers at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, recently sent an email to people who had served as garden hosts that talked about her fun interactions with guests that day on topics ranging from bullfrogs to bananas. The subject line: “Wish you were here!”
That message resonates with a lot of managers of volunteers these days. Volunteerism had been declining for years before Covid-19, and the pandemic sent many charities’ volunteer programs into disarray. As many as 30 percent of managers of volunteers got reassigned or laid off in the six months after Covid struck, according to a 2021 report by VolunteerPro, run by Tobi Johnson, a volunteer-management expert.
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Susan Cory, who coordinates volunteers at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, recently sent an email to people who had served as garden hosts that talked about her fun interactions with guests that day on topics ranging from bullfrogs to bananas. The subject line: “Wish you were here!”
That message resonates with a lot of managers of volunteers these days. Volunteerism had been declining for years before Covid-19, and the pandemic sent many charities’ volunteer programs into disarray. As many as 30 percent of managers of volunteers got reassigned or laid off in the six months after Covid struck, according to a 2021 report by VolunteerPro, run by Tobi Johnson, a volunteer-management expert.
With fewer people around to coordinate activities, the volunteers drifted away. A 2020 study by Fidelity Charitable found that two-thirds of volunteers decreased their activity or stopped volunteering entirely after the pandemic began.
Jennifer Bennett, director of education and training at VolunteerMatch, a nonprofit that helps other organizations recruit volunteers, says charities that made few efforts to remain connected to volunteers in 2020 and 2021 will spend years rebuilding volunteer programs.
“That’s a hole that we’re looking at in the field,” Bennett says. “It’s not just a lack of institutional knowledge, but a rupture in the relationship. Charities that laid off volunteer managers and didn’t have a strategy for keeping the communication lines open with volunteers are back to starting from scratch.”
It’s also a missed opportunity, some experts point out. The return on investment in a strong volunteer program — primarily, the donated work that organizations might otherwise have to pay for — often far exceeds the money they spend on oversight and salaries for volunteerism professionals. And a talented cadre of volunteers can help depleted charities continue to serve clients at a time when many organizations are struggling to fill open positions.
The disruption hasn’t been all bad — some charities did stay in touch with their volunteers and responded to the pandemic by revamping programs that had grown stale, providing new opportunities for people to get involved. Some of those charities, including the Des Moines botanical garden, now have more volunteers than ever.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” says Jude O’Reilley, VolunteerMatch’s CEO. “You have nonprofits that because of their lack of resources or the nature of work were not able to turn in time, and they became nearly or entirely dormant on the volunteer aspect of their work. And then you have other groups that have adapted and even thrived.”

The hours contributed by volunteers at the Des Moines botanical garden bottomed out at 8,200 in the fiscal year ending June 2021 — barely more than half the hours that volunteers put in the year before the pandemic. But the charity stayed in touch with its volunteers throughout that time and even put its “Friends chapter” — which includes some of its most-experienced volunteers — in charge of incubating new activities to support the botanical garden.
The Friends oversaw two “shed sales,” at which they sold yard tools and decorative items that had been donated. They also helped create an artisans’ guild, where volunteers could gather socially while creating pottery items and cards made out of leaves collected at the botanical garden. In the past year, several volunteers have also served as “garden coaches” — advising other charities in the Des Moines area about how best to create and manage gardens.
These activities not only generated revenue for the charity, but they also created new volunteer opportunities, which more than offset volunteering declines in other areas — such as the garden hosts that Cory is urging to return. During the 2022 fiscal year, the number of hours volunteers spent at the botanical garden rose to 17,200, up from 14,500 in the year before the pandemic.
Cory says the Friends group allows the charity to experiment with new ideas without creating more work for employees. “Right now, our staff is overtaxed and is not going to be able to see these projects through,” she says.
Kari Aanestad, associate director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, says charities should be doing all they can to keep volunteers at a time when many are having a hard time holding on to paid staff members. The council has conducted five surveys of its members since the pandemic began, and the results from the most-recent report find that 46 percent of charities are experiencing work-force shortages and hiring challenges, while 40 percent say they don’t have enough volunteers.
“When you look at the work-force and hiring challenges for nonprofits, it’s intimately connected to volunteering because of the compounding impact,” Aanestad says. “If half of organizations don’t have enough staff, and 40 percent don’t have enough volunteers, then there’s a big capacity concern there.”

Neglecting volunteer programs is also short-sighted, many experts say, because the programs often provide a high return on investment. UJA-Federation of New York, one of the nation’s few grant makers that directly support the creation of volunteer programs, began a campaign seven years ago to encourage grantees that provide human services to expand their use of volunteers. So far, the UJA has provided a total of $10 million to 30 organizations.
In 2021, the UJA made grants worth $1.3 million to pay for the salaries of volunteer-engagement professionals, software, and training at 14 organizations. Volunteers contributed a total of 124,600 hours at those organizations. Using Independent Sector’s estimated value for a volunteer hour in New York — $33.17 — that yields volunteer contributions of time worth $4.1 million, or more than three times the size of UJA’s grants.
Michelle Raymer, the senior volunteer-engagement officer at Volunteer Iowa, says such findings demonstrate that charities that cut back on volunteerism to save money or staff time will lose out in the long run.
“For every dollar you’re saving, you’re losing even more from having fewer volunteers coming into your organization,” Raymer says.
Robust volunteering programs are also valuable because of the close association between volunteers and donors. A person who becomes familiar with an organization through volunteering is likely to eventually become a donor.
Islamic Relief USA is in the fortunate position of attracting many young people — the average age of the charity’s 24,000 volunteers is just 29. Many of these young people have been eager to get back to in-person volunteering over the past year. Said Durrah, Islamic Relief’s assistant director of volunteer engagement, says they have been attracted to the charity’s volunteer events in part because of their safety protocols, including social distancing and free KN95 masks. In April, during Ramadan, 400 volunteers from Islamic Relief and Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., collaborated to pack 125,000 pasta meals for local residents.
About 7,000 people began volunteering at Islamic Relief after first donating to the charity. But the association is even stronger the other way — 10,000 people began donating to Islamic Relief after first volunteering at the charity.
“People who volunteer donate more often and at a higher rate,” says Betsy McFarland, a volunteer-management consultant.

In July, many volunteer-management professionals were at the Points of Light conference in Orlando, where some of the speakers described an unexpected benefit from the pandemic — it shook up volunteerism programs that had grown stale.
“The pandemic made people think differently,” says Sapreet Saluja, executive director of New York Cares, a volunteer network in New York City. “Once stretched, we won’t go back to the old way of thinking.”
Many of the charities that managed to expand their volunteer programs during the pandemic were willing to make a quick pivot. Braven — a mentoring program that helps college students of color, students who are first-generation collegegoers, or those who come from low-income families transition into strong first jobs — was scheduled to hold an in-person event in March 2020 with 200 students participating in mock interviews. That event was canceled because of the initial spread of Covid, but within days, the charity transitioned the interviews to a virtual event conducted over Zoom.
The organization partners with colleges in five cities, and before the pandemic, Braven paired first-generation students and students of color with professional mentors in person. But since the start of the pandemic, most of the mentoring has gone virtual. The shift comes with some benefits — since the mentor no longer needs to be in the same geographic area, Braven can scour the country to find the best mentor for a student based on his or her career interests.
“The programs we’ve had this summer have by leaps and bounds had the strongest quality of matches in our history,” says Daniel Alter, Braven’s director of employee partnerships.
This summer, Udyog Pati, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India, was paired with Adam Bennett, an investment adviser in Silverdale, Wash. Pati, a graduate student in business analytics at Purdue University, will soon be competing in a case competition, where students are asked to solve hypothetical business challenges. During one of their weekly mentoring sessions over Zoom, Bennett advised Pati to use the event as a networking opportunity. “That can be a more organic way to make connections than applying for a job,” Bennett says.
When Pati wanted to learn more about what data analysts do at an investment firm, Bennett arranged virtual interviews with some of his colleagues at Morgan Stanley who work in that area.
“If Udyog has questions about things he’s learning in school and I can’t answer them, I get him to someone who can,” Bennett says.
While the transition to digital volunteering was somewhat natural for Braven, whose staff held Zoom meetings even before the pandemic, other charities had to make a leap of faith into online volunteering.
At the Visiting Nurse Association of the Treasure Coast, in Vero Beach, Fla., volunteers provide emotional and spiritual support to hospice patients, and before the pandemic, all volunteering had been conducted in person. But the in-person visits stopped abruptly in 2020 — both the hospice patients and the volunteers, three-quarters of whom are over the age of 65, are at high risk of complications from Covid.
Sara Bumgarner, the charity’s manager of volunteers, says the group tried to stay in touch with volunteers in the first few months of the pandemic by offering virtual book clubs and cooking classes, but when it became clear that in-person visits might not be viable again for months or years, she began searching for an online solution. The charity discovered a product called Grandpads, highly secure tablets designed to make online communication easier for people who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology. Volunteers and hospice patients used the product for video calls.
“We offered trainings to the volunteers on how to engage in conversations with someone virtually — how to hold their attention and be present with them, even though you’re not present with them,” Bumgarner says.
The new approach came with an unexpected upside; many of the volunteers are snowbirds who head north when summer comes, which limits their in-person volunteering to about half the year. But the online volunteers can now connect with patients year-round, no matter where they are.
The digital approach didn’t appeal to all the volunteers. The number of volunteers, which bottomed out at 200, is now up to about 250, but it is still far below the 450 to 500 volunteers the Visiting Nurse Association attracted before the pandemic.

Experts say there were plenty of problems with volunteer programs even before the pandemic hit. Many programs have struggled to attract low-income volunteers and volunteers of color. Critics say one reason for that is that the vast majority of volunteer-engagement positions at charities are held by white people, typically women.
Another challenge: Too many charities are stuck in the past, pushing volunteers to commit to a regular time slot and perform tasks that are boring. Today’s volunteers don’t want to spend years working toward a recognition pin. Many people, especially young volunteers, want short-term opportunities where they can see immediate results for the organization or its clients, preferably while they employ or develop skills that might help them in their own careers.
“Our volunteer-engagement system in this country is embedded in a process that was built in the 20th century by Silent Generation volunteers who believed in loyalty, duty, and patience,” says Beth Steinhorn, a Denver-based volunteer-engagement consultant. “Showing up every Tuesday from 1 to 4 and sticking with it to make your 10-, 20-, or 30-year pins.”
Jovita Woodrich, volunteer-services director at Volunteer Florida, says smart volunteer leaders today are designing opportunities that appeal to a new generation.
“You don’t have to commit to 10 hours a week to make an impact,” Woodrich says. “Volunteers of any age can spend an hour or two making wellness calls at home to isolated individuals. If you happen to be tech savvy, you can knock out a website in a few hours or create a social-media campaign from home. That’s what I would encourage volunteer-engagement leaders to think about.”
The rapid growth of Develop for Good shows that an innovative idea can shake up the sleepy world of volunteerism. The charity assembles teams of college students majoring in computer science and other tech fields to create or revamp websites and apps for charities. Founded by two Stanford undergraduates after the pandemic hit, the charity has already deployed 1,200 volunteers and worked with more than 100 charities. Each project is overseen by an experienced technology professional who serves as a volunteer mentor. Students get a chance to develop “soft skills” working with the rest of their team, can point to a successful real-life project they have completed, and use their mentor as a job reference.
“Our dream is to scale our approach and take it to a much larger number of students and nonprofits,” says Mary Zhu, a co-founder of the charity and its executive director.
Steinhorn included a chapter on Develop for Good in a new book she co-wrote, Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World. She says the charity has a “beautiful model that has thrived because it filled a niche.”

One reason volunteer programs are slow to evolve is underinvestment — by nonprofits, foundations, and the government. Within charities, volunteer-engagement leaders have much less clout than directors of development, programs, and other areas, who typically are much better paid and are higher up in the C-suite.
“Personally, I think it has to do with volunteerism being stigmatized as women’s work — work done by people who have the privilege to work for not a lot of money and aren’t working to feed their family,” says Jennifer Bennett of VolunteerMatch.
Foundations aren’t helping. Very few help organizations create or expand volunteer programs. The Leighty Foundation is one of the rare ones that support volunteer-engagement programs — and it is making a big push this fall to generate more interest among its peers.
Leighty, along with the Lodestar Foundation, VolunteerMatch, the National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement, and UJA-Federation of New York, is sponsoring a survey of nonprofit executives and a companion survey of grant makers to collect baseline data on why they do, or do not, make it a priority to spark volunteerism. Jeffrey Glebocki, a consultant working with Leighty, says the research, conducted by the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland, will be used this fall to launch a national conversation about increasing support for efforts to spur volunteering.
Federal policies also hurt volunteerism and national-service programs. At a time when gas prices remain high, reimbursement rates for volunteers who drive their own vehicles remain stuck in another age — charities are allowed to reimburse volunteer drivers at a rate of just 14 cents per mile, compared with a rate of 62.5 cents per mile for for-profit employees.
Nonoko Sato, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, says she talked to a colleague in a rural area who wonders if it still makes sense for her to volunteer since she uses her car in her volunteer work.
“This clearly speaks to the wealth disparity in volunteerism,” Sato says. “You almost have to be wealthy or financially stable to be able to volunteer.”
AmeriCorps is also struggling to attract volunteers — despite receiving an additional $1 billion from Congress in 2021 to expand programs and increase the living allowance. “We have seen a decline in member and volunteer applications across all programs and are awaiting reporting from our grantee partners throughout the country to understand the full size and scale of the decline,” says an AmeriCorps spokesperson, who asked not to be identified.
The lack of interest may have many causes, including questions about whether corps members will be able to volunteer in person and concern about whether AmeriCorps programs are focused enough on issues young people care about, such as racial justice, says Kaira Esgate, CEO of America’s Service Commissions, a network of state commissions that oversee AmeriCorps and volunteer-engagement initiatives. But one contributing factor, she notes, is the meager living allowance — a guaranteed minimum of just $16,502 per year, even after a nearly 16 percent increase over the past two years thanks to the new money from Congress.
“All of these things together are impacting the numbers,” Esgate says.
For charity volunteers, money isn’t the issue — but some recognition is always nice.
When the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County closed for months in the early days of the pandemic, staff members at the Florida theater invited volunteers to join weekly “jazz brunch Sundays,” in which participants would gather on Zoom while the theater manager played YouTube selections from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
Twice, the theater held special events to recognize their volunteers. At the first one, in fall 2020, volunteers drove up on the valet ramp and paused as theater executive staff members cheered and put special gift boxes in each volunteer’s trunk. “Thank you for not forgetting about us,” the volunteers said.
“We had no idea the impact it would have on them,” says Nicole Smith, the theater’s manager of volunteer services at the time. “There were a lot of tears — for them, and for us.”

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