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Seismic Shift in Volunteerism

COVID-19 has impacted so many aspects of our lives and organizations over the past year. One area on which it will have a lasting impact on is volunteers. Every organization I’ve spoken with recently has lamented about how the pandemic has negatively impacted their volunteer staff.

Volunteers are critical to the functioning of non-profit organizations. According to AmeriCorp, in 2018 over 77 million people volunteered through an organization, providing $167 billion in economic value. That’s huge.

So what is happening?

There’s an old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As a result volunteer programs have changed very little  at most non-profits over the years. For many organizations, volunteer management has been one of the easiest parts of their work as they have enjoyed a consistent pool of long term volunteers who were comfortable with their roles and going about their routines.

Now we are facing a seismic, generational shift.  When the shutdowns started in March 2020 many volunteers were told to just stay home as organizations curtailed or closed down their volunteer activities completely. Volunteers could no longer come to locations to complete administrative tasks, they couldn’t work in food pantries and thrift stores, volunteers could no longer provide basic personal services like giving rides to people who needed assistance getting to appointments, or performing home visits. Some activities shifted to remote or online interaction but for the most part, volunteer opportunities vanished.

Now that things are opening back up and more and more people are becoming vaccinated, organizations are starting to reach back out to their volunteers to return. What they are finding is that some volunteers have decided not to continue volunteering. Many volunteers are older and have just decided it is time to stop volunteering and refocus their time, some volunteers have found new interests. Other volunteers simply don’t feel comfortable working in an environment where they need to wear a mask, or they just don’t feel safe being out and about at all.

The COVID-19 landscape and public perceptions are changing rapidly. Even organizations who aren’t ready to have volunteers return should be reaching out to their volunteer base and checking in with them. They should be finding out how their volunteers are doing now, what their immediate needs may be and what their thoughts are on returning. If there is hesitancy about returning, find out specifically what it is and what can be done to remedy the concern. Being able to provide a volunteer environment where people feel safe is critical. Volunteers who are not returning will either need to be replaced or their tasks restructured.

Non-profit organizations are at a juncture where they need to very seriously review the role of volunteers in their shops. This will include an assessment of what volunteers are being asked to do, what tasks are essential, what tasks need to be redefined, what tasks can be eliminated without having a negative impact on clients.

This is an opportunity for reassessment and renewal. What I have heard over and over from non-profits is that they’ve been forced to look inward and reevaluate their programs across the board. And in the process they have made themselves much more efficient at delivering services. Now reinventing volunteer programs for a post-pandemic landscape should be a priority.

There is good news. Many volunteers has expressed feelings of isolation and loneliness during the pandemic and are anxious to return to normalcy and a more social life. And people will be looking for new activities and new volunteer opportunities in the post-pandemic world. Organizations will have to assess how to recruit new volunteers and the demographics of those volunteers, which in turn impact how much time those volunteers are willing to commit, when those volunteers will have time to do their work, and what those volunteers will find rewarding.

Baby Boomers are giving more hours of service (2.2 billion) than any other age group. While Boomers are aging out of the volunteer network, in some areas of the country Millennials are stepping up to do more. And the best news is that Gen X has the highest rate (36.4 percent) of volunteering, so there is a large pool of individuals who will become more active in the years to come.

“The only constant in life is change.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus, c.535 – c.475 BCE

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