Inside Philanthropy

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

October 26, 2009

Volunteers, part 1: Nonprofits face big challenges

By Todd Cohen

A surge in service in the U.S. has handed the giving sector the huge job of gearing itself to match its needs with those of volunteers.

And as government shifts its investment and role in engaging volunteers, a critical task will be to better match volunteer resources with the urgent social needs facing our communities.

That is the perspective of Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light Institute, an organization created by then-President George H.W. Bush to boost volunteerism.

Since 1989, when Bush formed what then was known as the Points of Light Foundation, the number of Americans volunteering has grown to 61.8 million last year from 38 million, while the rate of volunteering among Americans has grown to 26.4 percent last year from 20.4 percent.

The number of volunteers and the rate of volunteerism also have grown across demographic groups.

Last year, for example, 8.24 million people ages 16 to 24 volunteered, up from 3.53 million in 1989, while the volunteer rate for that age group grew to 21.9 percent from 13.4 percent.

And the volunteer rate grew in the same period to over 29 percent from 22 percent for adults ages 45 to 64, and to 23.5 percent from 16.9 percent from 16.9 percent for adults age 65 and older.

Contributing to that e growth, Nunn says, has been a combination of leadership by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; leadership and investment by Congress; the work of the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Points of Light Institute; efforts by the nonprofit community that “raised the sights around service and sector engagement;” corporate volunteerism programs; and service-learning programs at colleges, universities and schools.

The recession also seems to have spurred more volunteerism, Nunn says.

Volunteerism over the last year has grown 40 percent, for example, across all age groups at Point of Light Institute’s HandsOn Network of over 250 community centers that connect volunteers and community projects throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Yet the increase in volunteerism also has created big challenges for nonprofits, Nunn says.

“Corporations and individuals are increasingly looking for how they can best use their skills, professional experience and passions and hobbies and put them to good effect,” she says.

Yet there is a “disconnect” between volunteers’ skills the nonprofits’ capacity to put those skills to productive use.

“We really do have a capacity problem right now,” she says. “We do need to figure out how to increase the capacity of nonprofits and volunteer connector organizations.”

And that problem is growing as volunteerism soars.

After handling orientation for 2,000 volunteers in 2008, for example, the HandsOn affiliate in Boston handled orientation for 2,000 volunteers this past August alone.

Without additional investment and “new ways of doing things,” Nunn says, “either the system implodes or you basically end up turning people away and deterring and discouraging service over the long-term.”

Next: Obama targets impact, innovation

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