On January 15, 2022, the Star Tribune ran an article titled “Twin Cities nonprofits face critical shortages of volunteers amid omicron surge.”
At MAVA, when we talk to volunteer engagement organizations all over the state, we’re hearing about a shortage of volunteers. Because of our statewide lens, we want to provide some nuance behind the shortage and offer a potential way forward.
Let’s start with the obvious: COVID-19. The pandemic hasn’t just hurt volunteerism because people are staying home for fear of getting sick. We have re-prioritized our lives, tightened our social circles, and narrowed the number of activities we give our energy to.
Every time COVID cases peak, group volunteering disappears — groups of students, faith-based groups, and corporate groups. Volunteer groups are the bread and butter of many organizations, and without them, organizations need to count on individual volunteers.
But now, individuals have extra family responsibilities. The national childcare shortage and the chaotic switches between virtual and in-person schooling hasn’t just affected parents. Grandparents are stepping in to help — those retired folks who used to be the backbone of our volunteer workforce.
There’s also the fact that older volunteers are aging out of volunteerism, especially in Greater Minnesota, And the next cohort of retired volunteers aren’t coming. In many cases, they are still working full-time to make up for retirement savings lost in the Great Recession of 2008.
This is all compounded by a national labor shortage and an increasing political polarization, which does little to strengthen people’s sense of community and shared social responsibility. There are many factors outside the control of the volunteer sector.
Some volunteer engagement leaders have told us, “it seems like people don’t care about their communities anymore."
We know that’s not true.
In 2021, MAVA published a report which showed that, of all the people who give their time in service to others, only 30 percent of them do so through organizations. The other 70 percent are “informal volunteers,” which looks like neighbors buying groceries for their elderly neighbors, or people in faith communities caring for each other’s children. Communities of color report especially high levels of informal volunteerism.
The pandemic has put a lot of extra pressure on people, but in many ways the pandemic has accelerated informal volunteerism. So the question becomes: Why aren’t those folks, who care deeply about meeting community needs, not volunteering at organizations?
There is an incredible opportunity to learn and innovate. It starts with asking questions.
Are the volunteer opportunities broadly inviting, or are they only during office hours? Are organizations welcoming to everyone in our community, or only able-bodied English-speakers? Are organizations hiring only white people, but asking People of Color to do unpaid volunteer work? Are organizations located far away from neighborhoods they are trying to recruit volunteers from?
And what can we learn from the Great Resignation? People are voting with their feet. Workers are asking more from their companies. Volunteers are asking for more from organizations. They both want flexibility. They want lower stress and more meaningful experiences. They want to understand the impact of their work, and they want chances to build community.
There’s another factor at play here: People think volunteerism is free. Any volunteer coordinator will tell you how often they are assumed to be a volunteer. People don’t understand that organizations often have paid staff manage volunteers.
Unfortunately, sometimes organizations also fail to invest in their volunteer programs beyond a nonprofit salary for one or two staff people. But MAVA’s encouragement to innovate cannot fall on the shoulders of the volunteer coordinators. The whole organization has to buy in. It will require time, teamwork, consultation, and money to overcome internal and external constraints.
We don’t think the critical volunteer shortage is going to suddenly solve itself when (and if) COVID goes away. So instead of continually reacting, volunteer engagement organizations need to be proactive. We need to take a critical look at what we have built, and if it is not working any more, we need to imagine something new.