Grant Makers Weigh What’s Needed to Help Volunteerism Programs Thrive
After years of stagnating volunteer numbers made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, nonprofits and foundations are grappling with the future of volunteering, according to a new qualitative report released by the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagements.
The report shows that while foundations largely consider volunteering to be an important means of connecting with community members and contributing to programming, they have doubts over whether it is a worthy investment in nonprofit resources. It comes at a time when formal volunteering is struggling to make a comeback after years of declining participation rates and a pandemic that disrupted and transformed how many community members opt to give back.
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The Covid pandemic sparked a sharp drop in the share of Americans who volunteer: Less than one in four volunteered in 2021, compared with 30 percent in 2019, according to new data published by AmeriCorps and the U.S. Census Bureau.
The decline is the largest measured since the two organizations began to measure volunteering rates two decades ago. For nonprofits that faced years of declining interest from volunteers even before the pandemic, the new data comes at a time when many are unsure of how to best rebuild and invest in efforts to ask people to donate their time.
Now, some foundations are asking whether they can — or should — do more to help nonprofits attract bigger numbers of volunteers. (See also “Why and How Charities Should Revive a Declining but Vital Resource ... Volunteers.”) To find out the answers, a group of grant makers and nonprofits focused on volunteerism, including the National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement and organizations that fund volunteer programs such as the UJA Federation of New York, conducted interviews with more than two dozen experts.
The key finding, says Sue Carter Kahl, a consultant to nonprofits and author of the new report, “Investing in Strategic Volunteer Engagement: A Qualitative Study,” is that nonprofits first need to ask what the people they serve need — and then think about how volunteers can help, rather than focusing on what organizations need.
Today, few foundations provide grants for developing and maintaining volunteer programs, and not all think it’s worth investing in such efforts at all, according to Kahl.
But one foundation that does consider it worthwhile is the Leighty Foundation, a member of the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement, which commissioned Kahl’s report.
Jane Leighty Justis, president of her family’s foundation, says she believes volunteerism is a low-cost way for nonprofits to extend their impact.
As an example of the power of volunteers, Leighty points to one of her foundation’s grantees: Court Appointed Special Advocates [CASA] of the Pikes Peaks Region, which trains and supervises volunteer representatives in legal proceedings for children who have suffered domestic abuse.
“I have 28 people on my staff, and we have 400 volunteers who are out there doing the hard work in the communities,” says Angela Rose, executive director of CASA. “We couldn’t do this work without the volunteers.”
When the pandemic hit, the organization, which serves around 1,700 children every year, quickly adapted so volunteers could attend court hearings online. Thanks to previous grants that laid the groundwork for a strong volunteer program, the group bounced back quickly. Once it was possible for advocates to work from home, CASA actually attracted more volunteers than previously, says Rose.
Three grants amounting to $13,000 from the Leighty Foundation were a significant part of the nonprofit’s success before the pandemic and beyond, allowing the group to revamp its volunteer program and significantly increase recruitment through new community partnerships.
With the Leighty Foundation’s grant, CASA also added new peer coordinators to link experienced volunteers to new ones who needed mentorship and training, a move that has improved the quality of volunteers’ work and increased the percentage of those who keep volunteering.
“It’s not rocket science to see that the return on investment and the return on engagement was huge,” says Leighty Justis.
Such dedicated volunteer funding can be a boon for nonprofits, many of which have had a hard time attracting and retaining volunteers and paid staff members alike in recent years. As they rebuild postpandemic, such funding can also help nonprofits retool how they attract and communicate with volunteers to be more effective and more representative of the people they seek to serve, says Kahl.
Kahl says to improve the diversity of the volunteer force, nonprofits might consider offering stipends, child care, or other measures to make volunteering more accessible.
Focusing on how Covid changed both volunteerism and the nonprofit work force, plus the way changing demographics are transforming how nonprofits operate, is an essential discussion for foundations and charities, says Leighty Justis.
“It’s a topic whose time has come,” she says. “We’re going to be unpacking it and reframing it in a very different way than that of the white wealthy nonworking woman of 50 years ago, who was seen as the volunteer.”