News and analysis
October 15, 2009

Can the Nonprofit World Handle a Flood of Helpers?

Concerns mount over whether charities will squander a moment when everyone wants to volunteer

Every time Erica Wissolik tried to volunteer, she struck out. An AIDS clinic didn't return her calls. A charity helping families displaced by the Balkan war gave her the cold shoulder. An employee at the Washington chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters told her the group didn't need any white women.

She finally connected with an animal-rescue group in Northern Virginia that specializes in saving cats.

Ms. Wissolik, a lobbyist, says she's finished with mainstream charities.

"I'll stick to feeding baby kittens," she says.

As momentum behind volunteering builds, Ms. Wissolik's experience raises tough questions about what constitutes success: Even if Americans answer the call to service, will charities know what to do with them?

In January, President Obama urged citizens to give their time to help others. In March, Congress passed the Serve America Act, the largest expansion of community and national service since the launch of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The high point may come next week, when 60 television shows, in an unprecedented push coordinated by the Entertainment Industry Foundation that begins October 19, feature volunteering in their programming.

Yet concerns about charities' ability to respond are mounting as well.

A survey released in April by Deloitte LLP, a consulting firm, found that more than a third of charities do not currently have the infrastructure to effectively deploy volunteers, and that 57 percent could not make good use of a new influx of volunteers.

Karen Baker, secretary of service and volunteering for the state of California, says she has found that most charities do not even have a system for handling phone inquiries from prospective volunteers. While enthusiasm for volunteering has perhaps never been so strong, Ms. Baker says, "most nonprofits aren't as prepared as they would like to be to take good advantage of that energy."

Assessing Needs

The problem goes beyond charities that blow off volunteers. Charities that happily take on volunteers don't always do so efficiently.

Nancy W. Basinger, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who teaches courses on nonprofit management, says that a charity that provides after-school tutoring may reflexively put all volunteers with kids — even though some volunteers might have more interest in, and aptitude for, fund raising, publicity, or groundskeeping.

"If a charity could say, 'These are the five volunteer positions that we have, and here are the areas where we need the most help,' it would be much more successful in placing and training volunteers," Ms. Basinger says.

An added tension is the growing interest by corporations and others in large-group projects for employees or members of churches and other groups, even if the charity is not ready to absorb so many volunteers.

'Extreme Makeover' Mind-Set

Stephen Tagliaferri, executive director of Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity, says his chapter, which builds five or six houses per year, finds it hard to get more than 10 people inside a house for work on the interior.

"People have that 'Extreme Makeover' mind-set," Mr. Tagliaferri says. "They see a house built in half an hour and that's what they want to do. But we don't have these large projects going on where we can take 25 to 50 volunteers in a day and keep them busy."

Those kinks have not gone unnoticed. Next week, a coalition of volunteerism experts is starting a campaign called Reimagining Service — an effort to encourage charities, corporations, and volunteers to adopt best practices, with a goal of maximizing the benefit from the call to service. "The focus is on moving from good intentions and making sure they translate into greater social outcomes," says Evan Hochberg, Deloitte's national director of community involvement, who helped convene the group.

The Serve America Act allowed Congress to provide up to $50-million in 2010 for a Volunteer Generation Fund, which would help charities develop better systems for recruiting and managing volunteers.

But as spending bills wind their way through Congress, the best hope is that $8-million will actually be allocated for the fund next year, says Julie Murphy, senior director of government affairs for the Points of Light Institute, which promotes volunteering.

Data on whether more people are volunteering is mixed. A study released in August by the National Conference on Citizenship found that 72 percent of Americans said they were cutting back on volunteering and other civic activities.

But a separate study by the Corporation for National and Community Service reported a big increase in volunteering in 2008, and many groups that link volunteers with charities are reporting increases.

Through August, for example, Boston Cares, a volunteer-recruitment center, put 2,046 new volunteers through orientation — roughly the same number as its entire total for 2008.

Patrice Keegan, executive director of Boston Cares, which works with about 200 charities per year, says a few "super popular" charities may be turning people away, but the vast majority are still very hungry for volunteers. "There's a lot of capacity waiting to be filled out there," she says.

But some volunteering experts say the system is broken — and that it won't be fixed by a sudden influx of more volunteers.

"Organizations say they need volunteers, but somewhere it isn't happening," says Jayne Cravens, a consultant in Portland who specializes in volunteering. "We don't need any more volunteer-matching Web sites. What we need is organizations with the resources to engage these people."

With the Volunteer Generation Fund likely to receive only a modest appropriation this year, some experts say foundations need to take on a bigger role in helping charities better manage volunteers.

"It's not that the philanthropic community has looked into this and said, 'I'm not interested,'" says California's Ms. Baker. "We haven't even presented it as an item on the menu."

Saving Money

The pitch for foundations could be as simple as pointing to the return on investment that well-managed volunteer programs can provide.

The Women's Community Clinic, a medical center in San Francisco, advertises for volunteers in local newspapers. Volunteers spend six months working the front desk, before moving on to a specialty, such as pregnancy or HIV counseling. The charity has 100 volunteers providing labor worth 6.5 full-time positions — an annual savings of $500,000.

The Utah AIDS Foundation has only nine full-time employees, and about 250 volunteers who are involved in 25 different activities. One part-time volunteer coordinator interviews and assigns the volunteers. Total volunteer hours add up to the equivalent of about 3.5 full-time positions, and volunteers have full responsibility for a lab that offers tests twice a week for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

"There's just no way that we could provide the level of service that we do without our volunteers," says Stan Penfold, the charity's executive director.

Yet some foundations are cutting their support for volunteerism-related projects, as they grapple with reduced grant-making budgets.

The Taproot Foundation has seen foundation money for volunteer-related efforts drop by 68 percent in the first quarter of 2009 — which is forcing Taproot to cut the number of projects it organizes, despite ample interest from volunteers and charities.

Taproot promotes pro bono service by business professionals, and relies primarily on foundation support for the projects it oversees at charities. The group sends teams of eight to 10 skilled volunteers to charities for a specific project in an area such as marketing, information technology, and strategic planning. In return for a $6,000 grant, Taproot will organize a project that provides, on average, about $50,000 worth of donated labor to a foundation's grantee.

"It's tragic," says Lindsay Firestone, a Taproot manger. "We finally have an increasing number of the right volunteers, but we're limited by lack of funding."

Altered Thinking

Charities are also constrained by tight budgets, which means investing in even a part-time volunteer coordinator may be impossible for many for the immediate future.

But what's needed even before that step, experts say, is a change in attitude.

Melba Culpepper, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hollywood, in Los Angeles, says that when she first began working for charities 30 years ago, she was among those who thought volunteers were more trouble than they were worth. But her views have evolved.

A board member invited Ms. Culpepper to speak to a group of his friends before he loaded them on a bus for a party weekend in San Diego. Jeff Kennedy, who had just been laid off from Oracle, heard Ms. Culpepper talk about the underutilized high-end Apple computers the charity had been given, and he offered to help network the computers with the charity's PC's.

Ms. Culpepper spotted her fitness instructor at the same event — and he volunteered to teach circuit-training classes to the club's kids using equipment that had been sitting around for months.

Now she is on the lookout for a volunteer who can help her develop an online newsletter.

"I can't put together this newsletter," Ms. Culpepper says. "But I know there's somebody out there who can."


  • Urge board members and top managers to show support for getting volunteers involved.
  • Make effective use of volunteers a priority in strategic plans.
  • Assess managers based on their use of volunteer labor.
  • Create opportunities that match a persons set of skills.
  • Build a volunteer program gradually.
  • Agree to fix volunteer systems that dont work.
  • Offer training for volunteers.