Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

October 13, 2008

Nonprofits can work smarter with volunteers

Volunteers represent an indispensable asset and resource for nonprofits, which can do much more to engage volunteers and put their expertise to work.

New research by the Corporation for National and Community Service finds that while most volunteers do not use their professional skills in their nonprofit work, those who do find their volunteer service more satisfying.

Nearly 61 million Americans age 16 and older volunteered in 2007, giving 8.1 billion hours of service worth over $158 billion, the Corporation for National and Community Service says.

But an estimated 22 million volunteers, or over one in three Americans who volunteer, stopped volunteering between 2006 and 2007.

That “leaky bucket,” the corporation says, underscores the importance of treating volunteers as valuable assets, giving them meaningful work, and using best practices to manage volunteers.

The group’s research also finds many volunteers are involved in fundraising, an important task for nonprofits but one that can divert the volunteers from opportunities to put their skills to work on other organizational needs.

The research also suggests volunteers who use their skills when they serve are more likely to keep volunteering.

A key way to better connect with skilled professionals as volunteers, the Corporation for National and Community Service says, is to build relationships with local businesses, and to be prepared to offer volunteer assignments that match their employees’ skills.

Professional associations also can serve as key partners in promoting the idea of pro-bono service by their members’ employees.

The American Bar Association, for example, helped establish pro-bono service as a common expectation in the legal profession, which at 47.1 percent has one of the highest volunteer rates in the U.S.

Research also underscores the need for nonprofits to be looking for ways to better engage Baby Boomers, young people, women and “intensive” volunteers.

Baby Boomers, or those born from 1946 to 1964, will double the number of older volunteers in the coming decades, and young people are volunteering at higher rates than the previous generation, the research says.

It also shows women volunteer at higher rates than do men, and that women with children and working women volunteer at higher rates than other women.

And the percentage of volunteers giving over 100 hours of service a year totaled 35.6 percent in 2007, the highest level since 2002.

Previous research has shown that volunteers tend to give more to charity than givers who do not volunteer, and that people who start volunteering at an early age tend to keep volunteering.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofits, and they have a lot more to offer than nonprofits typically ask them to do.

By developing strategies to better recruit volunteers and better match their skills with organizational needs, nonprofits can better equip themselves to operate more effectively and better serve their communities.


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