Key Trends in Navigating the Changing Volunteer Landscape

Posted Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

Volunteerism is continuously changing—and certainly the last year brought more change than usual. Not only do social, economic, and generational trends affect how individuals volunteer, but now the pandemic has transformed how organizations can attract, engage, and retain qualified volunteers.

In a recent webinar, which is now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, explored trends in the changing volunteer landscape, as well as observations and strategies for your organization to leverage trends to further your mission.

Particularly, understanding trends can help us make informed choices about volunteer program innovations and opportunities. This article dives into key trends influencing volunteer engagement, including the effects of the pandemic; volunteer rates in the US and other current data; and how to leverage the changing interests of volunteers.

Trends in Volunteer Engagement

Volunteering was on the rise in 2018, with a US volunteer rate of 30.3%, up from 24.9% in 2017 according to Volunteering in America 2018 study by Corporation for National & Community Service. However, time spent volunteering was down from 126 to 89 hours per volunteer per year.

The 2020 Industry Insights report, published by Sterling Volunteers and VolunteerMatch, gives an excellent overview of the state of volunteering in the United States just prior to the pandemic. Here’s a look at how volunteer and organization perspectives aligned in early 2020 with a few key takeaways:

  • Sharing the impact of volunteer service is key to engagement.
  • Volunteers are increasingly giving their time for the social aspect.
  • More than half of volunteers use digital platforms to find opportunities.
  • Volunteers are willing to spend more on their own background check than organizations think.
  • People are optimistic about the future of volunteerism.

Pandemic Impacts

By March of 2020, the pandemic had disrupted most volunteer efforts, but it also accelerated many trends already in the works. VolunteerMatch conducted research in December 2020 on The Impact of Covid-19 on Volunteering & The Social Sector and found that 65% of organizations were operating with reduced resources and 11% had halted operations at least temporarily.

In addition to a disruption in financial resources, volunteer resources have been disrupted as well. Volunteer engagement can be an extender or multiplier of resources, but the way we engage with volunteers has been affected by the pandemic. The percentage of organizations that increased virtual volunteering opportunities last year rose from March (32%) to October (51%). The expansion of volunteering opportunities is encouraging as we reset standard operations.

VolunteerMatch also asked volunteers what barriers have gotten in the way of volunteering commitments during the pandemic. The highest barrier was fear of being exposed to the illness (21%) and, not far behind was fear of exposing others (19%). In fact, the fear of being exposed to illness increased from March (46%) to October (62%). Organizations are implementing Covid-19 health testing to protect staff, volunteers and the communities they serve. Still, research shows that interest in and commitment to volunteering is growing.

This increase in virtual volunteer opportunities correlates with increased interest from volunteers. Volunteer participation in virtual opportunities grew significantly from July (17%) to October (29%), indicating that volunteers are beginning to adapt their behaviors to map to the current conditions. It isn’t just an interest in volunteering virtually; volunteers see volunteering as an important activity to the recovery post pandemic.

A study released in August of 2020 by Points of Light shows that while 36% of Americans participated in volunteer activities pre-pandemic, 73% believe volunteering is going to be more important than ever after the pandemic. Also, “The sweeping disruption and devastation felt by the pandemic has inspired individuals to volunteer—85% of nonprofits report volunteer requests increasing by at least double that of requests prior to the pandemic. A convincing 95% of individuals believe they will be at least as involved or do more to support their community once the pandemic passes.”

Further, more than half of Generation Z and nearly half of Millennials and Generation X, say they will do more to get involved in their community after the pandemic, offering an opportunity to diversify the age of your organization’s volunteers. Now is the time to prepare for a post-pandemic influx of activity. It’s your chance to convert a well-intentioned desire to do good into realized action.

Trends and Issues

Examining trends presents us with choices and we can leverage those trends or continue our work despite them. Organizations that can unlock trends in ways that advance their mission are more adaptable, capable, and resilient amid challenges such as the pandemic we have been facing.

Trend: Time

Before the pandemic, volunteers were already demanding more short-term projects and flexibility; the circumstances have only accelerated that trend. Organizations have had to be more nimble and haven’t always had time to onboard volunteers they needed immediately. Leveraging partnerships can offer a pipeline of vetted volunteers who take less time to onboard. Additionally, increased virtual opportunities have allowed a wider pool of volunteers to engage with organizations any time day or night.

Trend: Technology

Volunteer opportunities can easily be found online, which means increased competition. However, it also means you have search engines working in your favor. Social media can help spread your message, and we saw unprecedented civil engagement in 2020—the largest social movement in our nation’s history. Virtual engagement also played a key role in 2020, of course—but it isn’t necessarily a new trend. We did see an increase in both virtual volunteering opportunities and more willingness among volunteers to volunteer virtually.

Trend: Economics

Much like in 2009 after the economic crisis, people are volunteering to gain skills or keep skills sharp. We saw a rise in volunteering then and an accelerated focus on resume-building and volunteering as a path to employment. Think about how you are leveraging skills and providing skilled opportunities to engage potential volunteers, particularly those who need to keep their resume fresh, that meet specific needs as you reopen/recover. While organizations are more open to engaging volunteers virtually, they must embrace best practices for both in-person employees and virtual—same for volunteers.

Trend: Evolving Philanthropy

There have long been overlaps between giving time and giving money. It’s important to understand that philanthropy has many facets—and volunteering is one of them. Consider how you are engaging volunteers in philanthropy. Could you provide opportunities for them to crowdfund on your behalf? Volunteers historically give more than non-volunteers. Corporate engagement has shifted in response to the pandemic, but it hasn’t gone away. According to VolunteerMatch, the percentage of companies that have canceled group volunteering activities or put them on hold has dropped to 13% from 38-48% in March 2020. Companies want to be safe, yet they are still committed to supporting nonprofits with their employees’ skill sets.

Trend: Social Media

Many volunteers are cause-driven, rather than tied to an organization. Think about how you can engage with these free agent volunteers via social media. Learn from community organizing tactics and create social movements that inspire others to connect with your cause. Kit culture is another easy way for volunteers to engage through social channels. For instance, there could be a drive to build and mobilize “kits” like meal packs or advocacy letters amid Covid-19.

Trend: Generational Shift

There have been clear shifts in the nature and focus of volunteering efforts among generations. Events such as the recession of 2009 and the Boomer generation reaching traditional retirement age accelerated shifts already unfolding; the pandemic has done that again and brought with it the associated economic challenges. According to a Points of Light study, Civic Life Today: A Look At American Civic Engagement Amid A Global Pandemic, Generation Z is the most likely of all generations to get more involved after the pandemic.

Here are a few questions to ask about your organization’s cross-generational approach:

  • Are your volunteer opportunities generationally relevant?
  • Does your organization welcome and present a multi-age volunteer community?
  • Are you a culture that encourages gen-mixing?
  • Do you have strong gen-mix manager skills? If not, where can you get some?
  • What opportunities does recovery give you to rebuild in a future that will be sustainable?

Hybrid Volunteer Engagement

Most volunteer organizations have a blend of online and in-person operations right now and it’s undeniable that the future of volunteering will involve hybrid engagement.

The Points of Light study looks at what will attract volunteers in the future. From the volunteer perspective, a worthwhile experience is discoverable, local, credible, social, authentic, personal, impactful, and repeatable. When those elements are present, most people say they will make time to volunteer.

If you optimize your hybrid volunteering approach, VolunteerMatch found that you can embody these crucial elements.

  • Safety: Maximize safety of in-person volunteers
  • Virtual: Make virtual volunteering as impactful as in-person
  • Diversity: Market diversity of opportunities
  • Integrate: Mix the full volunteer corps (virtual and in-person)
  • Hybrid: Continue hybrid strategy beyond Covid-19

Sharing the impact of the volunteer’s work is one of the most important steps your organization can take toward a successful hybrid volunteer engagement. The Sterling Volunteers and VolunteerMatch 2020 Industry Insights report found that in 2019, 78% of volunteers reported that “understanding the impact of my volunteer service” was the top factor in keeping them engaged, staying consistent with the 82% of volunteers who wanted to hear about the impact of their efforts in 2020.

Finally, it’s important to note that volunteer engagement isn’t just a “program,” it’s a strategy that should be part of every volunteer organizations Covid-19 recovery plan.

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Navigating the Changing Volunteer Landscape: Exploring Key Trends” webinar.

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The information contained herein is for informational purposes only. Sterling is not a law firm, and none of the information contained in this notice is intended as legal advice. Clients are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel about the impacts of any requirements. This, and other important information can be found on the Sterling website at