2021 Industry Insights: Nonprofit and Volunteer Perspectives

Posted Wednesday, September 22nd, 2021 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

The nonprofit industry was simultaneously turned on its side and inspired into action over the past year and a half amid the pandemic. Needs shifted, programs restructured, and the importance of sharing new ideas and experiences came clearly into focus. The 2021 Industry Insights report examines the experiences of nonprofits and volunteers over the last year specifically, exploring varying perspectives and evolving trends in volunteer engagement, background screening, volunteering advancements, and the state of volunteerism.

Sterling Volunteers and VolunteerMatch partnered for a third consecutive edition of the annual Industry Insights report, surveying 2,577 volunteers and 1,350 representatives of nonprofit organizations. The report presents a brief overview of the findings, calling out some of the most notable industry insights, and dives into details on:

  • Key trends in volunteer engagement and background screening.
  • How volunteer engagement approaches and background screening tactics have evolved.
  • Data-driven insights on industry advancements and the state of volunteerism.
  • Alignment of nonprofit and volunteer perspectives on key topics.

Co-presenters Katie Zwetzig, Executive Director of Sterling Volunteers and Laura Plato, Chief Solutions Officer at VolunteerMatch, recently teamed up to share insights and key takeaways from the report. If you missed the live webinar, you can view it on-demand here.

Volunteer Engagement and Evolving Perspectives

Nonprofit organizations were challenged to engage volunteers in the middle of a stay-at-home order, and pivot to virtual formats. More than half (57%) of the nonprofit respondents continued to onboard volunteers amid the pandemic, and only 20% of volunteers halted volunteering. Over the next year, 79% of organizations expect the same amount of volunteer service or more, and 76% of volunteers expect to volunteer the same amount or more.

Volunteerism persevered during the pandemic, as a quarter of volunteers said “responding to urgent needs related to pandemic or disaster relief” motivated them to volunteer and many more continued their previous volunteering efforts. Only 20% held off due to Covid-19.

What motivates volunteers? Making a positive impact in the community is the top motivator from both volunteer (83%) and organization (88%) perspectives. Volunteer responses of “supporting particular cause(s)” rose significantly, from 48% in 2020 to 65% this year, while skillset-building declined in popularity, down from 27% last year to 20% this year.

Access to virtual or in-person volunteer opportunities ranked high as 90% of volunteers gave positive responses with emphasis on the importance of “access to virtual or in-person opportunities.” This year, 82% of organizations agree. On the other hand, in January of 2020 only 54% of organizations reported that “recruiting online volunteers” was important.

Volunteers’ perspectives on engagement in 2021 align with past years’ Industry Insights report data — the most important factors for maintaining volunteer engagement are understanding the impact of their service and building relationships.

Volunteer Background Screening

Background screening is a critical step to help minimize risk for any nonprofit. There are numerous perspectives to consider: volunteers, nonprofit leaders, volunteer managers, service platforms, the organizations that conduct screenings, and more. Safety and protecting your constituents are important.

Are there are opportunities to expand your organization’s volunteer screening program? Here are a few key findings from the report:

  • Organizations report requiring screening at a much higher rate (59%) than volunteers (21%). Additionally, more volunteers (10%) reported not being screened since the pandemic than organizations did (3%).
  • One in four organizations (27%) have uncovered a violent crime with a background check, including felonies and misdemeanors.
  • 41% of volunteers say they aren’t worried at all about undergoing a background check.
  • Background checks are completed most often for volunteer roles that work with vulnerable populations. Interestingly, 60% of organizations report conducting background checks for all roles, while 32% of volunteers report completing background checks for all roles.
  • One in five (20%) of volunteers indicated that they are “not asked to verify their identity”. (Learn more about Identity Verification).
  • 31% of volunteers and 30% of organizations say “time commitment” is a challenge when going through a background check.

Volunteering Advancements

We asked the nonprofit community what volunteer program advancements are important for organizations to deliver when considering the volunteer experience. It’s clear organizations and volunteers are aligned as their top three areas include a trusted and seamless volunteer screening experience, an online or in-person training program, and standardized volunteer background check requirements. Here are some additional highlights:

Volunteer Digital Identity Wallet – Volunteers are ready for a secure digital identity wallet with 62% indicating they would use a digital identity wallet, a notable 35% increase from 2020. Nearly half of volunteers (48%) would use a digital identity wallet to share their background screening profile with nonprofit organizations if they have secure control of it.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – Now is a great time to develop corporate partnerships as volunteers and organizations are aligned on expanding opportunities and screening education via CSR. Over 10% of survey respondents say they find volunteers or volunteer opportunities through CSR programs and more than 40% would like CSR opportunities to be incorporated into volunteer programs.

Sharing the Cost of Screening – More than half of volunteers (56%) and organizations (57%) agree that volunteers shouldn’t have to pay for their own background checks. Volunteers (25%) and organizations (24%) are aligned on volunteers contributing toward the cost of their own background checks. Additionally, volunteers (44%) are willing to pay $20-$25 for their background checks, more than organizations think (31%).

2021 Perspective: The State of Volunteerism

The underlying takeaway is good: optimism prevails in 2021. Despite the challenges a global pandemic presented in both 2020 and 2021, 94% of volunteers and organizations remain optimistic about the future of volunteerism. Below are some thoughts shared by nonprofit organizations and volunteers from the survey:

Nonprofit Organizations

“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to add virtual opportunities to our programs as well as online training and interviewing. I believe we will come out of it with more well-rounded programs.”  – A nonprofit development director from Texas

“[In the] virtual world we were actually able to get more people trained… I feel this opens up more opportunities for the future. People also seem to be in the mood to look for volunteering opportunities.”  – A volunteer manager from Colorado

“The pandemic has brought out more compassion and willingness to help.”  – A nonprofit program director from Tennessee

“Changes bring new opportunities.”  – A regional volunteer manager from Indiana


“It’s becoming more common for companies to consider community involvement and volunteering part of their core values and providing their employees with time and opportunities to support this value.”  – A volunteer from Michigan

“Because hardship that is public naturally brings out the giving nature of the majority of human beings, even those with very little to give.”  – A volunteer from Maryland

“People are finding ways to help more and work together to bring about positive change at all levels.”  – A volunteer from Oregon

“Younger generations are invested in making their communities better places and care about social justice.”  – A volunteer from North Carolina

With courage, strength, and optimism — amid a pandemic or not — we are united and motivated when opportunity presents itself. From Sterling Volunteers and VolunteerMatch to nonprofit constituents in communities across the nation, thank you for your service.

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “2021 Industry Insights: Nonprofit and Volunteer Perspectives” on-demand webinar. Plus, download the full report here.

Connect with us Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.

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 sterlingcheck.com.