Volunteer Trends

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In 2014, more than 62 million Americans volunteered (about a quarter of the population, 25.3 percent). Women, and people ages 35-44 years were most likely to volunteer. Surprisingly, volunteer rates were lowest among 20-24 year olds (18.7 percent). One troubling trend is that of the young people who volunteer, (often through mandatory service learning while in high school) many don’t think of working for a nonprofit as a viable career option. By not optimizing the volunteer experience for younger volunteers, nonprofits may be missing an opportunity to cultivate future nonprofit leaders.

On the other end of the spectrum is the growing trend for nonprofits to be more comfortable engaging experienced pro bono volunteers. As corporations recognize that facilitating volunteer engagements is an actual HR benefit for their employees, this opens pathways for nonprofits to collaborate with those companies to identify volunteer engagements that are both meaningful for the volunteer and build the capacity of the nonprofit at the same time. Additionally, there are more opportunities now for experienced professionals to volunteer through supported pro bono programs. Hayley Samuelson, Storytelling Officer at Catchafire notes, “We see that our volunteers work on multiple projects because it is a great way for them to develop personally/professionally and also build a relationship with a nonprofit they are looking to impact. It is also quite common that Catchafire projects open the door for volunteers to become long term advisors. Nonprofits learn how to keep their skills-based volunteers engaged as supporters, donors, and advocates beyond the initial engagement.”

The link between donations and volunteers: A 2014 study of donors to the giant “donor advised fund” Fidelity Charitable (that has made grants of over $19 billion since its inception in 1991) found that there is a strong correlation between donors who volunteer and their giving habits. A significant majority (79%) of Fidelity Charitable’s donors reported they volunteered during 2014, and 87% of those noted an overlap between where they volunteered and where they donated. Half (50%) reported that they gave more because they volunteered; 42% volunteered first, then decided to support the nonprofit financially. One of the factors that donors reported would influence the likelihood they would increase or decrease volunteer activity in the future included whether or not the nonprofit makes an effort to engage the potential volunteer with “regular touchpoints.”

The close relationship between volunteers and their donations make sense: someone who is personally invested in a nonprofit’s mission – and aware of its impact and needs - is much more likely to make a donation. Nonprofits may not think of every volunteer as a potential donor, but reports such as Fidelity Charitable’s should encourage nonprofits to consider that possibility. Given the potential that any volunteer may be transformed into a donor, there is an incentive to ask volunteers for feedback. This will ensure that your nonprofit can continue what’s working well, and consider improvements that will maximize the positive outcomes of using volunteers. Many nonprofits survey their volunteers annually, or at the end of each volunteer’s period of service, similar to an “exit interview” for an employee. Such surveys offer an opportunity not only to learn about the volunteers’ direct experiences, but also to collect information useful to strengthen the nonprofit’s overall outcomes.

The link between volunteers and impact: Ideally the goal of asking volunteers for feedback will be broader than finding out whether volunteers are “satisfied.” Susan Ellis of Energize, Inc., points out in her blog post that a volunteer survey can help the nonprofit use the contributions of volunteers as a way to describe a nonprofit’s outcomes and impact. Certainly it is useful to discover whether volunteers feel adequately trained, rewarded, and safe. If a survey helps uncover that volunteers do not feel adequately prepared, or unsafe, or that their service is not appreciated, that is a useful information because the nonprofit can identify what improvement is needed. But the real benefit of a thoughtfully crafted volunteer survey goes beyond satisfaction and gets to impact. Ellis offers the following sample questions:

  • “What have you observed or heard from clients this year that indicates your services made a difference to them or changed their behavior or circumstances?
  • “Can you tell whether or not your efforts have had results? What are the indicators?”
  • Did you meet the goals we mutually set for your work this year? How do you know? Do you think they were the right goals?
  • Did anything unexpected occur as a result of your volunteer activities (something that was important to our clients) this year?”

Questions that dig a little deeper than “rate your satisfaction on a scale of one to five” remind volunteers that they play an important role in the nonprofit’s ability to advance its mission. The bonus is that the results of the survey can also help the nonprofit demonstrate that volunteers are true contributors to the organization’s outcomes.

The next time you are asking volunteers for feedback see if you can include some impact-oriented questions, such as those above, that enable your nonprofit to document the significant contribution volunteers make to advance the nonprofit’s mission. Here are some sample surveys to help you get started.

More resources about volunteers are available on the National Council of Nonprofits’ website.

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