Appreciating and Engaging Your Volunteers by Roxanne Jensen, EdSpec

Volunteerism has become a vital component to supporting community needs throughout the United States. Volunteers are engaged in critical activities at virtually every level from direct service delivery to data collection and reporting to board-level involvement and fundraising. Without volunteers, many nonprofits would not be able to implement their programming or serve their clients.

If there was one almost ubiquitous effect of COVID-19, it was a re-evaluation of priorities. The pandemic forced all of us to consider how we spend our time. As a result, while almost 75% of Americans think that volunteering will be more important after the pandemic (TeamStage, 2023), there has been a significant decline in volunteer rates. The latest data (September 2021 to 2022) marks the largest decline in formal volunteer rates since AmeriCorps and the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking the data in 2002. For women, rates fell by 8 percentage points, while men’s rates declined by 5 percentage points (AmeriCorps/U.S. Census Bureau, 2023).

What can nonprofits do to help fix the problem?

  1. Understand an individual’s time is valuable and be flexible to their scheduling needs. While the top four volunteer fields in the United States are for religious (34.1%), educational (26%), social service (14.9%), and health (7.3%) organizations, the top four national volunteer activities are food collection or distribution (24.2%), fundraising or selling items to raise money (23.9%), general labor or transportation (18.8%), and tutoring or teaching (17.9%) (Nonprofits Source, 2023). Nonprofits not only need to understand individual’s motivation for volunteering, but also their strengths and preferences for work activities and times. If the match of volunteer to work is not right, then volunteers will not be back.
  2. Provide opportunities for socialization. While some people volunteer simply for charitable reasons, most people engage with their volunteer organizations as a means of socialization. Volunteering strengthens a person’s ties to the community, exposing that person to other people with common interests, and provides fun and fulfilling activities. Nonprofits who specifically integrate volunteers through training, engagement, and recognition activities into the working culture of their organizations are more likely to retain their volunteers. Another way to add social connections is through corporate workdays. Individuals connect with the organizations as well as their colleagues in different settings to provide services to nonprofits in their communities.
  3. Stop expecting volunteers to volunteer for every opportunity. Most volunteers devote their energies to one cause about which they are most passionate. Seventy-two percent of volunteers are involved with only one organization, while only 18.3% are involved with two (Nonprofits Source, 2023). Volunteer fatigue and burnout is frequently seen when there are not enough volunteers to manage the tasks at hand and when existing community leaders are tapped to take on increased responsibilities, which ultimately becomes unsustainable. Evaluate your volunteer roles. Determine if you are filling a gap in staffing capacity or utilizing volunteers to increase program reach, range, and depth.

While organizations play a major role in volunteer engagement and retention, funders have a vital role in supporting volunteers as well. An estimated 60.7 million Americans volunteered with organizations between September 2020 to the same month 2021, serving an estimated 4.1 billion hours with an economic value of $122.9 billion (AmeriCorps, 2023). Here are three ways funders can be influential in volunteer retention:

  1. Provide general operating support so nonprofits do not need to rely so heavily on volunteers to sustain programming. Due to the lack of volunteers and a shift in funding, some nonprofit organizations may have to stop the programs that rely on volunteer groups and readjust their goals to help those most in need.
  2. Provide investments in volunteer training. Training helps new volunteers get to know the people, the program, and the job quickly and efficiently. Training your volunteers establishes that there is a minimum competency that all volunteers are expected to obtain. Many volunteers see training as both a benefit and a necessity of being part of an organization.
  3. Provide investments in volunteer management practices that increase both volunteer recruitment and retention. Finding volunteers is tough for most organizations and keeping them is equally challenging. After spending significant time recruiting volunteers and spending valuable resources to train them, it is heartbreaking when they leave shortly after they start. With capacity-building funding, nonprofits will be better equipped to examine the roles and responsibilities of volunteer work, the climate where it is being offered, and the support given to volunteers. Funders can work with nonprofits to help them keep track of why volunteers leave and make changes to those aspects that negatively impact volunteers.

Nonprofit Connect has several upcoming opportunities regarding volunteer management, including volunteer ethics and the training, engagement, and recruitment of volunteers.

As of April 2022, the estimated national value of each volunteer hour is $29.95. This estimate helps to acknowledge the millions of individuals who dedicate their time, talents, and energy to making a difference. At Assel Grant Services, during Global Volunteer Month, we want to highlight the priceless ways volunteers hold up the foundations of our society. They help their neighbors, serve their communities, and provide pieces of themselves to others. No matter what kind of volunteer work they do, they contribute in invaluable ways.