Charitable Giving Threatened by Drop In Volunteerism

On Monday, the USA celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national day of service. From April 15 to 21, the nation will mark National Volunteer Week. Clearly, Americans value volunteerism.

Unfortunately, the volunteerism rate has been steadily declining for years. This trend has disturbing implications for philanthropy.

In 2003, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 28.8 percent of Americans volunteered. By 2015, that rate had steadily fallen to 24.9 percent. This is a huge problem for the nonprofit sector for a number of reasons:

Volunteers Provide a Valuable Resource. Volunteers do a great deal of work that might not be done otherwise. 62.6 million Americans volunteered 7.8 billion hours. Independent Sector reports that a volunteer hour is worth $24.14, over $180 billion of total estimated value. Sadly, with volunteerism on the decline, charities are forced to provide fewer services or incur greater labor costs.

Volunteers Serve as Ambassadors. In addition to being a valuable labor resource, volunteers are also fantastic ambassadors for an organization. The typical volunteer serves only one or two organizations, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. When volunteers share their experiences, they also talk with friends, family, and professional colleagues about your organization and its mission. This could lead to additional volunteer and philanthropic support. With a drop in volunteerism, there are now fewer ambassadors for charities, which will inevitably lead to less future support.

Volunteers are More Likely to Donate. Volunteers are twice as likely as non-volunteers to make a charitable contribution, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Even planned giving is affected by volunteerism. As I’ve reported previously, researcher Russell James, JD, PhD, CFP states in his book, American Charitable Bequest Demographics (1992-2012):

Among those with [estate] planning documents, those who both volunteer and give ($500+) are dramatically more likely to plan a charitable estate gift than those who only volunteer or only give ($500+). Those who only volunteer, plan charitable estate gifts at approximately the same rate as those who only give.”

Those who only volunteer or only donate ($500+) are more than twice as likely to make a legacy gift than those who do neither. [For a free electronic copy of James’ book, subscribe to this blog site in the right-hand column. You’ll receive an email confirmation of your subscription that will contain a link to the book.]

With a decline in volunteerism, we can expect fewer people to make current and planned gifts. This is already happening according to an analysis by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

There are many likely reasons for the decline in volunteerism including:

  • Higher employment rates,
  • Decline in religious affiliation,
  • Decreasing sense of local community in the digital age,
  • Increased geographic mobility among Millennials.

There’s another important factor. While 41.6 percent of volunteers become involved on their own initiative, 41.2 percent became involved only after being asked.

The nonprofit sector needs to stop worrying about the new tax code and, instead, focus more attention on volunteerism. If your organization wants more free labor, more ambassadors, more current and planned gift donors, you need to actively recruit more volunteers. Then, you need to make sure they have a meaningful, engaging, positive experience.

I’m curious; does your organization work with volunteers? If not, why not?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

8 Responses to “Charitable Giving Threatened by Drop In Volunteerism”

  1. Startling stats and agree completely. I wonder if the decline is also due to the attitude among potential volunteers that many charitable endeavors should or are being handled by public sector programs.

  2. Just like it’s so important to thank our donors, it’s equally important, and perhaps more so, that we regularly thank our volunteers and recognize their effort. My wife volunteers at a local non-profit and the employees often tell her how much she is helping them and helping the organization. Also be sure to let your volunteers know what’s happening in the organization. One day there was a luncheon planned for all of the staff but no one told the volunteers they were included.

    • Jay, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Sadly, you’re correct when you suggest that many nonprofit organizations take volunteers for granted. They shouldn’t. Volunteers are donors. They’re donating their valuable time. If it weren’t for those donations, the organization would have to spend more money on labor or provide less service. There’s no excuse for organizations to be stingy when it comes to thanking volunteers. Volunteers are supporters, too. Hmmm, maybe I should print t-shirts with that last line on them. 🙂

      • Michael — I completely agree and thank you for this thoughtful post. The good news is that interest in volunteering is on the rise — up 6% over the past few years according to the Corporation for National and Community Services most recent Volunteering in America report (volunteering had been relatively flat for over a decade). So, now the question is — how many nonprofits are set up to succeed in engaging this talent. Volunteer appreciation is only one part of a total engagement strategy — just like donor appreciation can only support part of a full development enterprise. In today’s complex, busy world, it takes a modern and sophisticated approach to collaborate with these values supporters —

      • Tobi, thank you for your comment and for sharing the link. I’m glad to hearing that more folks are volunteering. It’s important by itself, and it’s important for charitable giving as well. Charities need to do better at keeping those folks engaged by ensuring a meaningful, fulfilling volunteer experience. It just doesn’t happen automatically.


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