Volunteering is at a 10-Year Low. What Can We Do About It?

Jeff Gordy

It’s official — volunteering rates in America have reached their lowest point in more than a decade. According to a study released last year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 25.4 percent of Americans volunteered in 2013.

That’s means only one in four Americans are volunteering every year. Ouch.

In all fairness, it’s only a slight decline from the previous year — 26.6 percent. But the decrease is part of a larger trend. The volunteering rate has slowly dwindled from 29 percent to 25.4 percent in just 10 years. It’s clear that Americans are volunteering less, both in numbers and hours.

Volunteering is an undeniably American activity. It’s often called one of the country’s “core values” — the right to form voluntary associations is even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. And with the average American household donating nearly $3,000 to charities each year, It’s hard to understand why Americans are engaging with these organizations, but not volunteering.

Many in volunteer management think these numbers are disconcerting. Volunteers are such important partners for many organizations, and this trend could threaten the capacity — and even the existence — of several nonprofits.

So why are the numbers declining?

One of the most frustrating things about the slow decline in volunteering is that we don’t know exactly what’s causing it. The volunteer rates vary widely by just about every metric — age, income, region, race — so it’s hard to pinpoint why the numbers are lower overall.

Journalists and thought leaders have pointed to several possible explanations, including ties to the economic stress, regional differences, government funding and even the amount of single-parent households. It seems like everything has some impact on the volunteering rate, but there’s no conclusive and singular cause for the dropoff.

What seems to be the most worrisome (and somewhat inconclusive) statistic is a sharp decrease in volunteering rate among highly educated Americans. According to The Nonprofit Times, the rate of volunteering among people with a bachelor’s degree or higher plummeted from 42.8 percent in 2009 to 39.8 percent in 2013. Nathan Dietz, a senior research associate at the Center on Nonprofits & Philanthropy said this statistic could be “the canary in the coal mine.”

“That number had been stable a long time and all of a sudden the bottom dropped out,” Dietz said. “Education is the single best predictor of volunteering. It’s people with a job, and a good one.”

What can we do about it?

Even if we don’t know why the volunteering rate is declining, we can still do something about it — and we should.

Over the past few years, the nonprofit sector has shifted dramatically. We’re more focused on donor retention. We’re looking at data to make smarter decisions. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but nonprofits are becoming more efficient, effective and impactful.

Now, it’s time to bring that same perspective to volunteer management.

At NeonCRM, we’ve made a commitment to improve our volunteer management capabilities. We believe that nonprofits need to start tracking, engaging and measuring volunteer metrics — just like our sector has done with donations.

Your CRM can give you a 360-degree view of your donorsdonations, emails, membership, event registrations, etc. Shouldn’t it do the same for your volunteers, too?  

Your volunteers are committed to your organization. They give their time and skills and they also get to see their impact firsthand — a perfect recipe for engagement with your cause. These are the relationships your nonprofit should be nurturing, so they can grow into donors (and even major donors) years down the line.

Your organization can start putting a greater emphasis on volunteer management with a few simple switches:

  • Get to know your volunteers. We all know how important it is to have a comprehensive view of your donors. You should do the same with your volunteers. Know their interests, connections, employer — anything that will help you get a better idea of who your volunteers are and how to talk to them.
  • Start using data. Do you know your volunteer retention rate? Attrition rate? How about how many volunteers opened your last email? Take some of the same metrics you already use for your donors and apply them to your volunteer management. It will help you get a better idea of what’s working and what you can improve.
  • Illustrate their impact. Even though volunteers will get to see the impact they are making firsthand, reinforce that in all communications with your volunteers. Just like you would emphasize impact with donors, remind volunteers that they’re making a difference. Use compelling communications and statistics to put together appeals and thank yous specifically for volunteers.
  • Don’t push donations at first. Volunteers may seem like the perfect donors — and they will be, eventually. Engage them through meaningful volunteering, and they will be twice as likely to donate later on. This is especially true of millennials, who are significantly more likely to donate after volunteering. And remember, volunteers are valuable even if they don’t donate — the average hour of volunteer work is worth about $23.
  • Show them you appreciate them! What do you do to show gratitude to donors after they donate to your organization? Bring some of the same practices to your volunteer management by creating a follow-up process that thanks and encourages them to volunteer again. Consider going the extra mile with personalized follow-ups, gifts or events to honor volunteers.

In 2013 alone, it’s estimated that volunteers gave over 7.7 billion hours of service — worth a total of $173 billion. That’s a resource that the nonprofit sector can’t afford to lose.

Let’s change the trend — before it’s too late.

Learn more about Neon’s volunteer management software.

Showing 9 comments
  • Catherine Onyemelukwe

    Great advice. Will use it in my Unitarian church, where I lead legacy giving, and college – same – but also in national non-profit, US Committee for UN Women, where we have a hard time keeping volunteers engaged. Thanks.

  • Michelle Fuller

    We need to expand our ideas about who makes a good volunteer and be more inclusive! I work with people of all ages, ability levels, and backgrounds, which has lead to an increase in my volunteer numbers. Maybe if we invite a variety of people to volunteer we can turn the trend around.

  • Rob

    I’ve always wondered about how stats are collected on this – a phone room calling and asking ‘do you volunteer?’ – so people are asked to self-select – not sure how reliable this can be – and it’s one data point, there’s lots going on in the charitable sector that might influence this.

    • Andrew Dain

      Hi Rob, thanks for bringing that up. The study’s technical notes go more into specifics about how the research was conducted. You can find it here: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.tn.htm.

      It looks like they mostly did have people self-report (about 7 of 10), and the study included “informal” volunteering like helping out a neighbor or at a child’s school. But regardless of the methods, the stats have been consistently decreasing for the past decade — definitely an interesting larger trend, even if we’re not sure exactly what’s causing it!

  • Jono

    I’ve served the nonprofit space as a web and UX designer for more than 15 years. The problem with volunteering and all other forms of fundraising and engagement, amongst all nonprofits is that they cannot prove that they are doing any good. It’s not that NPOs are not doing any good, they simply have a VERY hard time proving it. Show your constituents the work you are doing. Show the world where their donated money is going. Put THAT on your homepage, delete EVERYTHING else and ask people to help you do more good. It is the most important lesson that I can pass on after 16 years. Simple, easy and effective – prove your value, earn donations of time and money.

    • Felix Stanek

      You’re 100% right about that, Jono. This lack of effective communication is exactly why we started our web design studio: to help NPOs “prove” their “worthiness” and drive donations and volunteering.

  • Brian Fulmer

    Thanks. Great info for a blog that I’m writing about church and mission involvement.

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