CASA of Lexington has tried just about everything to find volunteers to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children with the Kentucky nonprofit.
Since 2020, it has hired someone to focus on recruiting volunteers, added in-person and virtual outreach events and options to complete the required 30-hour training, and printed information on fans to hand out in churches, Melynda Milburn Jamison, its executive director, said. She even visited a men’s-only barbecue to make a quick 10-minute pitch.
The result? In 2022, CASA of Lexington had 62 new volunteers complete training, short of its target of 80. Only two came from the group’s recruitment events, with the rest mostly via word of mouth, Jamison said.
“We’ve been able to retain keeping the number of children we serve fairly consistent,” she said, “but we should have been increasing because we’ve taken on new counties and we’ve added additional staff.”
Jamison is not alone in her frustration. Her experience reflects the latest twist in a decadeslong trend of declining volunteer participation. As pandemic-related government aid programs end and inflation rises, nonprofits of all kinds are looking everywhere and trying everything to get volunteers. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps survey, formal volunteer participation was 23.2%, dropping 7 percentage points between 2019 and 2021 — the largest decrease the survey has recorded since a version of it started in 2002.
It’s reached the point where the lack of volunteers strains the safety net that nonprofits provide to many of society’s most vulnerable.
“This is a wake-up call for the social sector, which depends on volunteers, especially as needs for services remain high,” said Michael D. Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps, which has opened its yearly grant program to award $8 million to help nonprofits recruit and retain volunteers.
The largest drop between 2019 and 2021 in any state was Colorado at 16.1 percentage points. Hawaii, Wisconsin and Ohio also saw double-digit drops. Utah, with its highest-in-the-nation participation rate of 40.7% in 2021, the most recent figures available, saw an 8.8 percentage-point drop.
Researchers, nonprofit professionals and volunteers offer a variety of explanations for the decline, including the COVID-19 pandemic and economic woes.
Historically, volunteering has been strongest among college graduates, married people and people with children. However, many millennials and Gen Zers are delaying those traditional markers of adulthood, and even their peers who do reach these milestones are volunteering at lower rates, researchers at the University of Maryland found in a 2019 report.
“Younger generations today are much more likely to work several jobs, more likely to have to share places to live long past the college roommate stage of life,” said Mark Snyder, director of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota. “These are barriers to getting involved. They are not all blessed to have the discretionary time to go out and volunteer.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also played a role, as closures and fears about getting sick led some people to break their volunteering habit. Some did not return, instead putting their attention on their families or, as local United Ways report, their own needs for help with food, rent, utilities and health care.
At CASA of Lexington, the recruiting problems mean the nonprofit cannot increase the number of children it provides an advocate for as quickly as it would like.
“Even though we served just shy of 700 kids last year, that was less than 20% of the need here. So there’s a huge need,” Jamison said. “We typically get the worst of the worst cases.”
Shannon Arimura, who runs volunteer support programs with Nevada Volunteers, said organizations should clearly outline the commitment and skills needed in volunteer postings, build relationships with new volunteers, and offer appreciation for their work.
“If you’re only going to give so much of your resources towards volunteer management, then it shouldn’t surprise you when you don’t have volunteers that will stay,” she said.
Karmit Bulman, executive director of Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement, recommends nonprofits learn from informal volunteering networks, meaning the help neighbors provide each other when needed. Those behaviors remained largely steady through the pandemic, the census survey found. The rate was 50.9% in 2021, compared with 51.4% in 2017.
“We need to stop thinking that we can do everything we used to do in the same way. So it’s a time for some pretty intensive change management,” she said.
Her advice is to seek volunteers from within the communities that nonprofits are serving, make the onboarding process as efficient as possible and meet volunteers when and where they are.
“A lot of our systems were set up as a best practice for the professionals who might typically be a white woman who’s leading the program as opposed to being a best practice for anyone” else, Bulman said.
Companies, long an important sources of volunteers, are looking to prioritize in-person volunteering again but are asking employees to take on a larger role organizing that and choosing programs, according to a recent survey by Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, which advises companies on sustainability and corporate responsibility issues.
“This orchestrated corporate vision of a day of service and one-day activities is shifting to companies wanting their employees to chart their own path of volunteerism and being ambassadors in the community,” Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, a managing director with that organization, said. “And they’re providing the toolkits and the resources to be able to make those decisions.”
The only state that saw an increase in formal volunteer participation from 2019 to 2021 was Wyoming. Rachel Bailey, executive director of the Food Bank of Wyoming, said many residents wanted to help when the pandemic hit and were willing to participate despite potential health risks.
The demand for food assistance also spiked, with her organization increasing the number of mobile food pantries from four to 19. Almost all of the new pantries are staffed by volunteers, some of whom are also seeking food assistance.
Her organization has been able to expand its volunteer force in part because it dedicated a paid staff to managing them and increased its warehouse space, Bailey said.
“We had some other team members that joined us that really have been looking at our volunteer program and understanding how important it is to the organization and how important it is for us to have the ability to distribute the amount of food that we do across the state,” she said.
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