News & Updates

5 Trends Facing Nonprofits Now

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Date: April 20, 2017

Evaluating—or re-evaluating—recruiting strategy, community outreach and ways to improve volunteer programs should include a thorough understanding of current trends and changes impacting the nonprofit sector. In conducting our latest research into the state of volunteerism and volunteer screening in America, we asked for feedback from more than 700 nonprofit professionals and received insights into the practices, challenges and concerns of organizations that rely on dedicated volunteers.

Here are five findings that will help you plan for improvements in your program, recruit volunteers and continue to make an impact in the communities you serve:

Volunteer Numbers Are Growing (Or Are They)?

Retiring Baby Boomers with time on their hands began to swell the volunteer market a decade or so ago. A new generation of socially conscious millennials brought new emphasis to volunteerism in recent years. Because staffing is a perpetual challenge for nonprofits and helping organizations, the organizations that use volunteers are using more of them.

The number of organizations saying they engaged more than 50 volunteers increased from 55 percent in 2015 to 76 percent in 2016. Fourteen percent of responder organizations plan to significantly increase their volunteer pool this year. At first, this sounds promising—more individuals are spending time volunteering.

However, very clear trend lines in research like that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show volunteer rates are steadily going down. Organizations with majorly volunteer-driven missions say they struggle to find and retain the types of volunteers they need—those willing to make long-term commitments, those who display certain skills and those who meet certain requirements like the availability to volunteer during the workday.

On top of this, the number of organizations using volunteers is increasing as new nonprofits start up. Entrepreneurship in the nonprofit sector is vibrant—there are very low barriers to entry for someone to begin organizing around a cause—be it a fundraising effort online or a community-based volunteer initiative that doesn’t require a 501(C)(3) to get started. Organizations are challenged to find creative ways to retain and engage their volunteers given the innovation and competition in the marketplace and demands on people’s time.

Training Programs for Volunteers Are on the Rise

As the range and complexity of volunteer opportunities increases, training becomes important to a wider range of volunteer positions. Formal training establishes standards of competency, brands an organization as caring and capable and quickly lets new volunteers know what will be required of them.

The percentage of organizations that use formal training programs stands at 83 percent—up from 2015’s 74 percent.

More organizations are trending towards being safe rather than sorry and implementing more formalized programs. These training programs have evolved from simply training a volunteer about roles and responsibilities to a formalized risk management and safety training program for vulnerable populations. Organizations frequently ask us to help them find qualified training and certification programs for their volunteers, with many of these requests initiating from their insurance companies.

More Organizations Are Serving Vulnerable Populations

Vulnerable populations include the economically disadvantaged, racial and ethnic minorities, children from low-income families, the elderly, the homeless, the uninsured and those with chronic health conditions, including severe mental illness. A whopping 88 percent of respondent organizations say they serve vulnerable populations—an 11 percent increase from 2015.

What does this mean for you? Well, particularly if you serve a vulnerable population, you have a legal obligation to make sure that your stakeholders are safe. Volunteers also say they expect to volunteer in a safe environment and that the volunteer they work alongside is screened. The basic legal standard that applies to screening is reasonableness under the circumstances. If a nonprofit’s screening process is challenged in court, a judge or jury will evaluate the reasonableness of the process employed, the foreseeability of the risk (whether the organization knew or should have known of the risk of harm), and whether the screening process—or lack of it—caused or contributed to the harm at issue. An opponent may argue that failing to conduct any screening is unreasonable.

It’s also more important than ever to understand and comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Organizations are obligated when working with a third party screening provider to follow the tenets of the FCRA when screening their employees and volunteers. Litigation around FCRA compliance issues in the for-profit world is increasing, and it is likely just a matter of time before nonprofits face similar tests. Your screening company can also be sued for compliance violations under the FCRA if the provider did not make reasonable efforts to ensure that the reports that they provided were up-to-date and accurate. Make sure the firm you partner with is compliant with both state and federal laws, knowledgeable, reputable and a true trusted advisor.

Challenges in Volunteer Screening Are Changing

Staffing is a challenge for volunteer organizations. In fact, recruiting and retaining qualified staff in an economy in which there is a “war for talent” is the most costly item for most organizations.

Why? We can’t be sure, but it may be that issues finding and retaining staff have put more pressure on volunteer programs. We know that working for a nonprofit can be quite demanding, so it makes sense that it would be challenging to fill positions and keep them filled.

More Organizations Expect to Do More Volunteer Background Checks

More than ever, organizations that serve the public, especially a vulnerable public, want to know and have confidence in their volunteers. The percentage of responder organizations who expect to do more background checks jumped from 48 percent in 2015 to 61 percent in 2016.

In recent years, we have seen the conversation about screening in the sector evolve significantly. Peer-to-peer spreading of best practice is helping organizations become much better educated on why they need to have a background check policy and how to differentiate between the products offered in the marketplace. External influences are driving this increase also—as the legal landscape around nonprofits changes, more organizations are citing the need to screen; generally because of a state law, regulatory requirement or even a grant requirement.

If you’re not screening potential, new and returning volunteers, you are opening your organization and the people it serves up to risks of harm, litigation and damage. Beyond the obvious dangers of not screening, you may be risking your organization’s reputation with future volunteers and the public.

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