Volunteerism: The Canary in the Coalmine

As any good businessperson knows, it is easier to get a current customer to buy more than it is to acquire a new customer. The analogy in the nonprofit sector is to increase affinity. Affinity can start as volunteerism then culminate as donations, or in peer-to-peer, as fundraising activity.

There are two components to gauge your supporters’ engagement with your organization: awareness and affinity. The “affinity funnel” below is based on “customer funnels” that are familiar to for-profits. For nonprofits, the idea is to increase a supporter’s affinity with the organization until they are an Evangelist, which means, “I donate; I fundraise; I volunteer.”  The funnel is often fed at the top by volunteerism, and that is what scares us. Because the number of Americans who volunteer has not just stagnated, but even begun to dip.

According to the latest data on volunteerism released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the volunteer rate declined when compared to the previous year by about a half of a percent. Around 25% of Americans volunteered for an organization at least once, and the median time spent on volunteer activities was 52 hours a year, ranging from a high of 94 hours for people aged 65 and over to a low of 36 hours for those younger than 35.

Most volunteers were involved with either one or two organizations — 72.0 percent and 18.3 percent, respectively. The proportion of volunteers who became involved with their main organization after being asked to volunteer (41.2%) was about the same as the proportion who became involved on their own (41.6%) — that is, those who approached the organization. Those who were asked to volunteer were most often asked by someone in the organization.

A 25% volunteerism rate still sounds pretty good, especially when compared to an average volunteerism rate of just 10% of all people worldwide. Nonprofit professionals may want to monitor job opportunities in Norway, where the volunteerism rate is a whopping 52%. If you can’t run a successful peer-to-peer campaign with Norwegians, you may need to consider a change of profession.

The problem is the number of people volunteering is trending down, 25% today from 29% in 2005. That four percent represents several million fewer people who are engaged in volunteerism. We hear a lot from nonprofit professionals that it seems like the pie is getting smaller, there is less juice in the lemon. It turns out that the spider-sense of the people who have been telling us this is right. And we fear that the smaller numbers coming into the top of the funnel through volunteerism will ultimately impact revenue.

Photo by  Sidney Pearce  on  Unsplash

There isn’t much reason to think that this trend is going to turn around anytime soon. Government programs have been a driver of some big volunteer programs like AmeriCorps VISTA and Senior Corps. The Corporation for National and Community Services (CNCS) funds these and other volunteer and service programs on a budget of about $1B. However, the Trump administration has proposed eliminating CNCS entirely in its first two annual budget proposals. Presumably, right now officials at CNCS are renewing their passports and downloading Norwegian language apps from the App Store.

What is the solution for nonprofit managers who are operating in a world of shrinking resources? Invest in the management of volunteers. In a recent article published in the Public Administration Review, researchers Rebecca Nesbit, Robert Christensen, and Jeffrey Brudney describe how engaging people productively in nonprofit work requires that they need to be managed, much as with paid staff. Something as simple as writing up specific job descriptions for volunteers can make a big difference, yet the majority of nonprofits don’t take the time to document volunteers’ roles.

Two things that have an impact on volunteers’ satisfaction (and their retention) is that the time they are spending is making a difference in some way and that they have the support and resources to do a good job. Nesbit, Christensen, and Brudney list six keys to working with volunteers:

1)     Ensure that everyone managing volunteers has the training they need.

2)     Don’t overload volunteering managers with additional responsibilities.

3)     Adequately fund and support volunteer programs.

4)     Train all staff on volunteers’ needs and motivations and teach them how to work and coordinate with volunteers.

5)     Let volunteers know that the group truly values them.

6)     Help volunteers see how their work for the organization benefits others.

Here’s the takeaway – volunteers aren’t free labor. They are a resource that needs to be managed and developed in order to yield revenue later. Nonprofit professionals measure the effectiveness of spending in other areas by looking at the ROI. We need to do the same for investments we make in managing volunteers, especially because we can’t take for granted that they will always be there. Volunteers are a resource that is shrinking; the pie really is getting smaller.