Episode #047: The State of Volunteer Engagement with Dr. Sue Kahl and Nathan Dietz 

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you.   

Welcome everybody to another episode of the Volunteer Nation Podcast. Gang, It’s all about the data today! We’re going to geek out about volunteerism data, the state of volunteer engagement. What’s happening, what do funders think? What do executives think?  

It’s all good and some new data, you know, that we don’t really always have available in our field. So this is a fantastic opportunity to learn what’s inside the heads of folks. So, I am joined by Dr. Sue Carter Kahl, as well as Nathan Dietz, and they were researchers on a study called The State of Volunteer Engagement.  

And we’re going to get started talking about this, and it’s very interesting. I think this research is a great bookend to the Volunteer Management Progress Report, which is more about, we’ve talked and we’ve talked about it on this podcast, but it’s more about what are the perceptions and experiences of leaders of volunteers, and so we’re getting sort of a 360 degree view.  

The only thing we’re missing right now is volunteers themselves, there’s plenty of data out there on volunteer perceptions, so I think it’s fantastic to have all this data coming out. One of the most recent studies to come out on volunteering in general was the Volunteering and Civic Life Study by AmeriCorps. 

And they have found that volunteerism in the last couple of years has dropped nearly 7%. And so, there is no time like the present to really start to think about how we can turbocharge our efforts to rebuild from this pandemic. 

I think we’re still seeing people struggling. I’ve seen some organizations who are doing fantastic and others who are still struggling, and so it’s going to take a village, I think, to bring volunteerism back up to the levels that we were enjoying way back in 2017, where we were at 30%, a little over 30% of all American adults volunteering. 

And then, 2021, 23 0.2%. It’s actually the lowest it’s been in over a decade, so we got work to do, but that’s why we have our fantastic guests, and let me introduce them. Dr. Sue Carter Kahl has spent her professional life working in volunteering in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.  

Her work as President of Sue Carter Kahl Consulting is infused with lessons learned as a nonprofit executive board member, fundraiser, volunteer, and researcher. Her current projects include consulting and training on the value that volunteers bring to organizations, translating research on volunteer impact into practitioner friendly resources and blogging at Volunteer Commons.  

And Sue has a PhD in leadership studies and a Master’s in Social Work Administration. And she worked hard recently to get that PhD. I know a few years ago. Sue, I’ve known Sue for a while. We’ve crossed paths at various conferences, and she is committed to bridging practice in academia in the volunteer field. Sue, you truly are a “pracademic,” I will say.  

Sue: Thank you. That’s the goal. 

Tobi: It’s fantastic. So let me introduce Nathan as well. Nathan Dietz. PhD is an associate research professor and senior researcher with the Do Good Institute, DGI in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland College Park. His research focuses on social capital.  

I love, love, love the idea of social capital and what’s happening with it, volunteering and giving to charity, civic engagement, and social entrepreneurship. He’s the author and co-author of several Do Good Institute publications, including a recent report on trends in civic health in the state of Maryland.  

He is also the principal investigator for a new project funded by the Generosity Commission on Trends in Civic Engagement. And gang, we will have tons of links in the show notes, so if you want to learn more about Dr. Sue and Dr. Nathan’s research and publications, you are definitely going to want to look at those links. So, welcome my friends to the Volunteer Nation.  

Sue: Thanks, Tobi. Looking forward to this conversation.  

Nathan: Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thank you. 

Tobi: Yeah, so let’s get started. Before we, you know, we had Dana Litwin on to talk about the National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement and some preliminary findings of the research really be, you know, it was tiny little nibbles. It wasn’t a lot, it wasn’t the full research study, and we learned a little bit about the National Alliance.  

But before we get started on this, diving deep into the data, let’s have you both kick off and just tell us a little bit about yourselves, what you do, why does volunteerism mean so much to you and what you’ve been up to? Either one of you can start.  

Sue: Okay. I’ll jump in. And so, I’ve spent my career working in, or with nonprofits and, philanthropic organizations. And even before it was officially part of my job description. When I was at an executive at the volunteer center, I’m in San Diego. 

Volunteerism just always was this thread throughout my career. And one of the things that I noticed was that there just wasn’t a whole lot of research on the questions we had when I was at the volunteer center. Actually, we had quoted some of your work, Nathan, from Urban Institute. 

And beyond that, I just came to the conclusion I might go do some of that research myself. And so really the emphasis that I’ve had is thinking about talking to practitioners, talking to academics, talking to consultants about the value that volunteers bring to their organizations and how we can capture that in more nuanced and multi-dimensional kinds of ways. 

And so that’s really been an emphasis for me, and this project’s been a great extension of, you know, what this looks like from the funder perspective.  

Tobi: Yeah. And it’s such. You know, it breaks it down in lay people’s terms. Not everybody you know has a PhD in the social sciences, and sometimes those research studies, those papers can be pretty deep and meaty and hard to get through for the regular practitioner on the street who’s just trying to get the next volunteer engaged and keep her team happy or his team happy.  

So, I love that you’re really focusing on this, and you’ve had an opportunity and a vehicle to really like live that value. Nathan, tell us a little bit about yourself and why volunteerism matters to you. 

Nathan: Well, volunteerism has been an important part of my professional life for over 20 years now. You mentioned AmeriCorps earlier. Back in 2002, I joined the Corporation for National and Community Service, which is what the agency used to be called. And that’s a grant- making agency that gives money to nonprofit organizations, to sponsor national service programs. 

But we also wanted to try to promote volunteerism nationwide. And the Volunteering and Civic Life study, the antecedent of that was what was called Volunteering in America. And it was the same data collection done by the same agencies, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

It told us a lot about what people were doing, but not anything at all about what organizations were. So, that’s been all the work that I’ve done recently. It seems like that’s been a huge gap in what we’ve understood is, you know, how organizations are responding to the supply of volunteers.  

You know, what kind of demand they have and how they plan to use volunteers. So, it’s really important because now I’m teaching nonprofit finance and everybody expects nonprofit organizations to do everything for free. They think nonprofit means no money. And, that’s not the truth of course, but I think it signifies how important people think volunteers are to nonprofits. 

Tobi: Yeah. And how people in some cases are missing the point. Recently I read an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, it was a couple of quarters ago and it was how community foundations, something, I don’t quote me on this, but it was something like how did community foundations get a better bang for their buck? 

You know, like how funders get a better bang for their buck. And I’m like, Ooh, great. They’re going to mention volunteerism! Now we know volunteerism is more than just a cost saving strategy, but it does save money sometimes. Right? So, and I look through the whole article and I’m like, there are no volunteers!  

And I was steaming for a little while, and then I got over myself. But yeah. So, your research is really, really important I think right now for many, many stakeholders. Tell us a little bit about the larger coalition that supported this research, how it got started, who got involved, what were the goals, and either one of you can kick us off. 

Nathan: I can get started, I think. You’re going to need to jump in here at some point, Sue. But the Do Good Institute, mainly me and Dr. Bob Grimm, who’s the co-author of our report and a guy who’s been working, the director of the Do Good Institute, and a guy who’s been working with me on research on volunteerism and civic engagement for a long time. 

We were approached by people from the Leighty Foundation who were, I think the ringleaders of this group of institutional funders who were interested in trying to promote awareness about the need for more information about volunteer engagement.  

You know, just to help funders understand what the need, what the needs of nonprofits were, help nonprofits understand what the state of things was, asked us if we would be interested in doing a national survey. 

So, through that we got it. We got acquainted with a lot of the other major actors within this partnership that’s formed this initiative. We worked with them directly as we were collecting the data for our survey because they were instrumental in helping us reach out to potential respondents to boost response rates. And without their cooperation, you know, our surveys couldn’t have happened.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. And the Leighty Foundation’s always been a big advocate for funding and supportive volunteer initiatives like forever in a day. What about you, Sue? I mean, there’s a huge coalition behind this. This isn’t just one or two organizations. It’s quite a fabric.  

Sue, from your perspective, what, how is, what are you seeing around key players and why this got started from the parts of the coalition you were touching most.  

Sue: Yes. Well, and I think you and I, Tobi, were at the national summit back in Minnesota a number of years ago where the seeds for the National Alliance were really planted. Looking at a cross-sector approach to how to make volunteer engagement more visible.  

How do we put this on the radar so that articles like you just mentioned are not going to overlook it? So, there’s been a lot of work done and I think one of the emphasis points for this coalition has really been around how do we either find or commission research that will support the work that we’re doing. 

That we have Just decades of anecdotal research or anecdotal experiences. How do we find some data conducted in a methodical, rigorous kind of way to support what we know by experience so that we can marry these two together? And that was really where I came in. I’ve been following and cheerleading the National Alliance for some time now. 

And after they had been conducting the survey data, they said, you know, we’d really like a chance to get at more of the nuance that’s involved. And so that’s a qualitative research type of project. So they approached me last summer and said, you know, could we design something to be a companion to this quantitative research? 

And in particular, we’d really like to know more about if funders are thinking about volunteer engagement, how they’re thinking about it, what that looks like, and give us an opportunity to have that fleshed out in a more robust way than we can with survey.  

Tobi: Yeah. So just for our listeners, in case you’re going qualitative, quantitative, I can’t remember statistics classes. So quantitative is the numbers, qualitative is the words. That’s the way I think about it in very, very simplistic terms as not a person with a PhD.  

But you know, the qualitative is fantastic because you’re not putting everything in buckets, you know? So in the Volunteer Management Progress Report, when we ask our biggest challenge question, we do it on purpose. We do not ask people to check a box. We want to know whatever that might be, that’s on their minds.  

And then we do all the the coding, which is a lot of work, I know. So, hats off to you. And then the quantitative stuff is really great for trends and for some cross- tabbing and kind of seeing where correlations exist. 

So it’s great to have that mixed methods approach that you’re talking about. Let’s talk a little bit about methodology. You know, who were the research subjects? We talked about in general, sort of CEOs and funders, but who were the research subjects? How were they chosen?  

We’re just going to get for our data geeky people in the audience who like methodology, we’ll do a quick pit stop in the methodology world. So who wants to share?  

Nathan: Well, I could start. I think we had, when we started engaging with the network leaders that the lead foundation put us in touch with, I think one of our first requests was, can you help us get a list of people who we can send the survey to?  

You know, it was a web-based survey. And that’s pretty hard to do. I think there’s a lot of data that’s available on the nonprofit sector in general, if you’re interested in financial data from the 990’s. But getting accurate contact information and working email addresses is really hard to get in bulk. 

You know, you can get it from a single 990, but not for a large group of organizations. So that’s where our partners came in. I think just helping us find organizations that we could survey, and that was especially true for the fund.  

You know, when we were looking for funding organizations, and I’m going to try to use that term because some of the people we contacted, it turns out, do fund volunteer engagement. Some of the funding organizations don’t, and they gave us a lot of valuable information. 

But the funding organizations, I think…on the one hand you can just, you can choose randomly from the entire list of like private foundations, but you’re probably not going to find very many of the ones that are most active in supporting volunteer engagement.  

So we had a lot of help in reaching out to those organizations. The people that we worked with just did fantastic work in helping us put a list together. So that was the toughest part. The other thing that we found, and we used this in the report, but because we got the EIN numbers for the actual respondents, we were able to link those to the survey responses and get a lot of information about the organization’s finances. Only some of which we’ve viewed so far, and talk about how it relates to the responses.  

Tobi: So, for the audience, EIN is the employer ID number. So their tax ID?  

Nathan: Yes. So, every nonprofit has to complete their taxes, so you can see all that financial information.  

Tobi: Fantastic. Well, you know we know about partners, partners really do help you connect with the right people and as many people as possible. You know, often we think that research needs to be totally randomly selected.  

It’s just not really realistic in today’s world, and it doesn’t necessarily offer you the best data. In this case, you wanted, you really wanted more funders with experience with volunteerism and supporting volunteerism, because you wanted to know those specific points of view. 

Nathan: Absolutely. I mean, as a practical matter, if we sent this out to a lot of organizations that didn’t have any interest in the topic, then they wouldn’t return the survey. But those that do, I think we were really interested in finding out from them why they’ve chosen the approach that they have. You know, why they think this is an important thing to prioritize. 

Tobi: Yeah. And we will talk in a minute about what those are, because there are some interesting perspectives. So what about the CEO and execs, and I think you had about a hundred funders participate, is that correct? A little bit over?  

Nathan: Yes, just barely over 103.  

Tobi: Yeah, fantastic.  

Nathan: And where we could, we went out to the leaders of the organization. That was the goal too, in the nonprofit survey. And I think that’s really important because surveying CEOs first we wanted people who could give us an organization-wide perspective on these questions. 

A lot of times – and a lot of great work that’s been done takes this approach, but they survey people who actually manage the volunteers. You know, that’s their job. And they can give information that the leaders don’t have.  

But I think as a result we don’t, there there’s a shortage of information about what leaders, how leaders feel about this whole issue. And so, that was great to get that perspective from them.  

Tobi: For sure. And you had over a thousand CEOs. How did you connect with those CEOs?  

Nathan: Our partners gave us their addresses, and they helped us by sending out introductory notes saying, hey, there’s a survey coming that we’re participating in. We’d really appreciate if you took the time to fill it out. It’s only 15 minutes. And that was, I think probably that’s the main form of support that we got from people, I think.  

Tobi: Yeah. Awesome. So, Sue, what about the qualitative side of things? How did you connect with folks, and was it interviews, focus groups? All of the above? 

Sue: Yes, all of the above, and we also tapped the expertise of, and networks of the funding group. We didn’t have any of the National Alliance group participate in the interviews because we really wanted people who were outside of that experience.  

And we were defining volunteer engagement really broadly. So we were thinking, so this wasn’t necessarily only traditional volunteer engagement, but we were thinking about how are you defining it? Civic engagement, community organizing, service learning.  

We really wanted to cast a broad net there. So we were tapping into people that the group knew funded volunteer engagement, as well as those they thought would have an opinion about it, whether they funded it or not.  

Because we really wanted these interviews and focus groups to have a chance to dig in and probe some of the reasons behind their funding or non-funding of it. So we reached out to leaders. We had organization leaders from 27 different, mostly foundations.  

We also had one public charity and one independent grant making LLC. But the foundations were made up of family foundations, private foundations, community foundations. And we held 19 interviews and three focus groups to collect the data over the month of August in 2022.  

Tobi: Awesome. So based on all these conversations and data points coming in and analysis, based on the research you did, what do we know about volunteer capacity in the state of volunteerism from both? 

I know this is a big question, so I’m going to ask you maybe what are, what’s a couple of big takeaways for both of you on maybe what are the myths that were challenged? How has Covid impacted? What were a couple of your big takeaways from the research? And Sue, I’ll have you start on this one. 

Sue: Okay, great! So, some of the big takeaways were that – and I think Nathan’s survey found this as well – there’s increased demand and there are a lot of workforce challenges, not only on the staffing side, paid staff, but as well with their volunteers. How are we finding the right people for a particular role?  

And there was also an increased consideration of equity and how that was intersecting with volunteerism and community engagement. So a couple things that stood out for me were that just because funders were not asking about volunteer engagement or related activities didn’t mean they weren’t interested in it. 

They were also saying, when organizations are talking about their volunteers, they often are talking about the number of hours or the number of volunteers, perhaps that wage replacement value. But they really wanted to know, what do all those numbers represent?  

What kind of contributions are volunteers making to the mission, to the community that’s being served?What’s the impact on the volunteers themselves? And then I think the other piece that really stood out was that volunteer engagement wasn’t necessarily assumed to be a slam dunk, win-win kind of situation. 

So funders recognize that there was an incredible potential and promise to volunteer engagement. And they also talked about, you know, some organizations don’t have the capacity to engage volunteers well, or some organizations are not prioritizing volunteer engagement, or some organizations were really struggling with how do we engage volunteers across the full community, not just the people that we’ve always attracted. 

So there was a more full conversation about the prospect of volunteer engagement, not just this assumption – that sort of the cheerleading, what I think about the sunshine and rainbows approach to volunteerism – we actually had some real conversations about the good, the bad, and ugly of it.  

Tobi: Yeah, I find it interesting, you know, the increased demand. In our Volunteer Management Progress Report, we found burnout both in staff and volunteers. In fact, we’d never heard anybody mention about volunteer burnout. We had to add it as another category in our coding.  

Because w’re like, nobody ever mentioned this before, so we had to add another category. And so, it was really more pronounced. I wouldn’t say it was the top challenge. Recruitment’s always the top challenge.  

But the other thing, when I was reading over your study, I wonder. You know, what I was understanding about some of the results was that funders also see the benefits of civic engagement and social capital and health and wellbeing of volunteers in their environments and in their communities. 

And that, so there was an equal benefit, or even maybe a more pronounced benefit for volunteers. But it made me wonder if, you know, does the lack of data on impact affect funders perceptions about the role of volunteerism, particularly in direct service?  

Because again, if we’re talking wage replacement, those are great for trying to predict the capacity and whether or not you’re going to meet your capacity. And it’s always a great thing to cheerlead, as you said, but the real impact data is what happens to the people that volunteers support.  

Sue: Right, exactly.  

Tobi: It’s not the impact on the volunteer program, it’s what’s an impact and ultimate, or I wouldn’t say ultimate outcomes are hard to track, but the outcome you’re going for is what is the impact on the service beneficiary or the patron, or the customer or whoever.  

Sue: Right, and I think one of the things that was really interesting, just as I would periodically step back from the data and see what’s happening with the big picture, people were talking over and over and over about how volunteers were, how the work gets done in a lot of organizations. 

Not just all volunteer organizations, but those that had paid staff where there was a volunteer and staff partnership, and yet that wasn’t coming out in grant reports. The funders were not necessarily, usually were not asking about it. 

Even when they saw that there could be compelling evidence to support volunteer engagement, they weren’t tracking or asking for any data. And they also said, we’re not hearing about this from our grant partners for the most part, too. 

t’s not coming through in a grant request. It’s not coming up in our site visits. And so, it was really interesting to see how something that was so essential to how many nonprofits operate was just overlooked. And what I was thinking about was hidden in plain sight. 

So we all know that volunteers are critical here, but we’re just not talking about it and we’re not asking about it. And so I think that, for me, that’s one of the issues. How do we use some of this data to make volunteers more visible?  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, last week, I did a training with our VolunteerPro members on tracking metrics, both leading and lagging indicators, and also what do you track on a monthly, quarterly, and annually annual basis beyond hours.  

Hours are fine, but there’s so much more. And we had a really good conversation. You know, back in December we did a VisionWeek where we did a bootcamp, a weeklong bootcamp, where we did strategic planning with leaders of volunteers.  

And you know, what was surprising to me in that workshop was how many people were having a hard time getting their hands on their organization’s strategic plan. So I’m like, well, how can you impact the strategic goals of your organization if you don’t know what they are?  

So there’s some structural things. If there’s both the ability to understand and track metrics, to have the tools to do it, the understanding of how to set them up, to interpret them and to share them. So it’s a communications issue, but it’s also an infrastructure issue of understanding how volunteerism.  

You know, actually the work that volunteers really do, it’s integrated throughout your organization and it should flow directly from your strategic plan.  

Sue: Right? And your volunteer related data should be flowing from your organizational data too, right? Why isn’t that just built in as part of the organization’s commitment to whatever capacity they have? You know, how are they collecting data about their impact and to what degree are volunteers contributing to that impact?  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. Nathan, what about you? What were some of the biggest takeaways on the state of volunteer capacity in the state of volunteer engagement? 

Nathan: Yeah. To tie together a couple thoughts here that we’ve been talking about, I think one is that, , within many organizations, we were surprised to see that the leadership is actually actively engaged, as are most of the paid staff with the volunteer engagement part of the organization. 

In other words, the people who do, people who work the most closely with volunteers are not completely disengaged from the rest of the organization. And they’re not only called upon when there’s a problem with the volunteer or something like that.  

They’re actually involved in strategic planning. And a lot of organizations, not surprising that you heard people who said that they had the opposite experience, but I think I was surprised to see that volunteer engagement is pretty well integrated into a lot of different organizations. 

Another thing, because we asked funders to talk about the benefits of funding volunteer engagement, I was surprised to hear from both funding organizations that did fund volunteer engagement and those who didn’t.  

But I think out of four choices, the idea that funding for volunteer engagement helps an organization build its capacity to deliver services was last on the list. In terms of the people who believe most strongly that this was a benefit.  

I mean, you had hardly any people who disagreed that this was important to organizations, but in terms of what the most significant impact was of funding, that was not one of them. What was the most important impact was the civic engagement angle.  

People talking about how important it was for volunteer engage. Nonprofits to engage volunteers because it helps strengthen connections with people and their communities and other organizations. And that came through in a few places. 

The last thing that I think surprised me just because working in the field of evaluation and working for an agency that tried to collect data from organizations for a long time, we got the impression that it was kind of hard to come by.  

I was surprised to hear on the list of things that funders really wanted to see in terms of measures of impact of volunteer engagement. What they really wanted to see, and we’re talking over 95%, said that they wanted to see this, was feedback from volunteers themselves and feedback from service recipients. 

I think they appreciate, I’m sure funders appreciate getting progress reports from nonprofits about, you know, the number of people engaged in the amount of service they provide. I’m sure they like hearing how it helps the organization, but it isn’t penetrating the way that you would expect it to.  

And I think that there’s more work, maybe a different approach with adding some information to what is normally delivered to funders would really help make funders realize just how important this whole enterprise is. 

Tobi: Yeah. It’s almost like a little more storytelling would be real helpful. When we were doing our training last week, I was breaking things down into stakeholder, like okay, data about a volunteer impact on volunteers, and then we had a bunch of impact metrics. Then impact of volunteerism on service beneficiaries had a bunch.  

And often the impact on service beneficiaries are the KPIs for that program. Like volunteers can own them because they produce them, right? And for some reason, people don’t see that, and I’m like, no, own it. Claim it! You know, if you did the work, right?  

Sue: And I think there’s another issue here, just a layer to this about looking at equity, too. The kinds of things that a lot of organizations have been reporting or have been asked to report or even that comes out through Independent Sector.  

It’s set up as this norm of this best practice to talk about ours and numbers and financial value, and yet that’s not what’s necessarily important to the people who are being served. You know, if we’re thinking about a Meals on Wheels beneficiary, they’re probably more concerned about is the volunteer friendly? Are they timely?  

And to the extent that that’s helping someone retain a sense of independence and dignity, the relief it provides to the family members. I mean, I think, like you were saying, that’s what really gets at why do our programs exist, why do our organizations exist? 

And I think that helps provide a color and a texture to the volunteer contributions that numbers just can’t get at. And so I think that’s a really important piece as we think about equity, not just in terms of how we’re engaging the community, but also what data are we using and what choices are we making. What values do those reflect when we make the decision about what data to report?  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. I remember years ago, and I can’t even remember where I came across this paper, but it was research on the perceptions of service beneficiaries of staff delivered, employee delivered versus I like to use “staff” for volunteers and employees, but employee delivered versus volunteer delivered services. 

And guess what? Volunteers were perceived as more trustworthy. They had no hidden agenda. They cared more. So, whether you work in a hospital environment, improving the patient experience is always a big thing for hospitals now, right? If you think about your Meals on Wheels, like a volunteer is going to have a little more time. 

They’re going to spend a little more. The other thing that struck me here is that it’s interesting for me that the CEOs, there’s an upswing in their understanding of the power and potential volunteerism, and it makes me wonder.  

Now, you probably didn’t collect demographic data, for example, generation or age data, but I wonder if the younger CEOs that are now coming into the sector or getting promoted up have had personal experience with volunteerism.  

You know, you think about service learning and you think about AmeriCorps, and how many CEOs came from AmeriCorps. I know a lot of nonprofit staff. It’s basically a professional development program for the nonprofit sector. 

So, you think about this generation of leaders and you wonder if, because they may have had personal experience with volunteerism or community service or national service, that that impacts their perspective. Any ideas about this?  

Nathan: Yeah, that’s been a really pertinent question as we went through the results, because both Bob and I were with our agency when the first big national collection of data from volunteer executives about what we were calling volunteer management capacity.  

You know, just to what extent organizational leaders knew how to manage volunteers, and especially given that the president had just put out a call to service following September 11th, 2001. How prepared was the sector to take on was what was potentially a huge surge in the number of volunteers? 

You know, would they have meaningful opportunities? We did a survey with the Urban Institute actually in 2003 that acted as a baseline for information about this, and that hadn’t really been updated or replicated in almost 20 years. 

Actually, the original principal investigators completed a new version of that survey just before the pandemic, and then we followed up on that by expanding the topic. But I think the interesting thing when you look at that, all the data that was collected in those studies over time, is how little seems to have changed when it comes to the sector. 

I mean the percentage of organizations that have professionals doing volunteer management, volunteer in charge of volunteer engagement as opposed to volunteers doing that work, changed a little bit. I mean, it dropped a little bit between period right before the pandemic and summer of 2022. 

But neither one of those percentages was very different than it was in 2003. So it’s not like the sector has gotten a lot more professionalized in how they conceive of the role of volunteer engagement specialists.  

What did change, I think, during the pandemic was you had a lot fewer organizations who had nobody serving that role, because I think everybody realized how important it was to have someone dedicating time to engaging volunteers. 

And so, that I think was a big difference. The other thing that I think, when it came to making these comparisons over time, how much has changed? Today’s CEOs really, really, really see the value and the benefits of engaging volunteers in a way that their predecessors, even right before the pandemic had never done. 

And I bet part of that is because there’s this new generation of leaders who have always grown up in the professional world knowing about national service, and I’m sure that just their openness to doing something new is probably the more general driver of what we’re seeing. 

But I think now, the percentage of people who said the volunteers provide this or that benefit to the organization, every single number was up by about 10 to 15% at least. It’s a big change, and I think it does have to do with more appreciation, like you were saying. 

Tobi: Yeah. I wonder too, we need to take a break in a minute, but one last thought on this, I wonder too about, you know, there’s been a change in leadership style as well. If you think of younger people and younger generations, it’s much more about participatory leadership.  

There’s much more interested, actually, I’m not going to say there’s much more interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it is an interest now. And that type of leadership style, versus the command and control top down, is more sort of volunteer friendly.  

It’s more pro volunteer. It’s like you’re understanding that everyone’s on a level playing field and that people’s lived experiences, whatever they are, whether paid or unpaid, have value and have potential for your organization.  

And I feel like there may be some relationship between how leadership has evolved and how our focus on DEI started to really grow. That has impacted this idea of grassroots, more grassroots to grass tops type of approach.  

Nathan: I am sure that’s true. The Nonprofit Sector, I think has rebounded ,n terms of employment numbers since before the pandemic. I think that that rebound is just about complete. But I think like you were saying at the beginning, the number of people volunteering is not rebounding. 

Nonprofit organizations, first of all, retention rates are much higher now than they, the number of organizations with super high retention rates is much higher than it was even right before the pandemic. And every organization, the single biggest problem that CEOs cite when they talk about the challenges of engaging volunteers is just finding people. 

Finding people, period. Finding people who can work on the schedule that works for the organization. Finding people with the right. But finding people is the biggest problem, and I don’t think funders are aware enough of that problem, but nonprofit CEOs certainly are.  

So if that’s the context in which you’re called upon to lead a nonprofit organization, I think that of course you’re going to engage people. Of course, you’re going to try to keep ’em as interested and motivated and involved as possible because you need everybody.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, hey, let’s take a break. And we’ll continue this conversation. We’ll be right back after this break about the state of volunteer engagement with Dr. Sue Carter Kahl and Nathan Dietz, so don’t go anywhere. 

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TobI: Okay, we’re back with our discussion with Dr. Sue Carter Kahl and Nathan Dietz on the state of volunteer engagement. Let’s get into what the research says and what we should do about it. Let’s maybe transition.  

We’ve been talking a lot about some of our key takeaways from the research, and I’ve been kind of reflecting on what it made me, you know, things that make you go hmm. Which, that’s what I love. Any research that promotes you to ask more questions is good research in my mind. 

But let’s talk about, in terms of executives and CEOs. What struggles, what are they struggling with, and what might be some remedies to that? What are your thoughts?  

Nathan: I think the single biggest one, and we’ve only mentioned it, but it comes through loud and clear here, is that many nonprofit CEOs are apparently operating under this assumption that there’s no point in approaching, especially institutional funders, to ask for support for volunteer engagement because the funders wouldn’t be receptive to that.  

What we heard from a lot of funders is, well, we don’t know why, but people don’t ask us for funding for that. They say, you know, a lot of ’em, non funders said that we don’t fund volunteer engagement specifically, but we give general organizational support and if they use it for volunteer engagement, that’s fine with us.  

A lot of people say our organizations don’t ask because they tell us that they don’t need funding for volunteer engagement. They need it for programming other priorities, but we did get a sense that there was this kind of a stalemate where nonprofit executives are not asking for funding from institutional sources. 

And as a result, institutional sources will say, well, this is kind of a, we don’t know what to say about this because people don’t ask us as a rule. I mean even the people with demonstrated track records as funding organizations for volunteer engagement, say that most nonprofits who approach them don’t ask for funding for. 

Tobi: And there’s a common mythology, because I hear it in our students and folks we coach and whatnot, that, oh, there’s no funding out there for that, you know? And I go, well, what’s your budget? First of all, do you have a budget?  

And, well, we don’t know what our budget is. When we ask, “What’s your budget?” so many people, a large percent, I don’t know what my budget. I said, you don’t have to have a dedicated set aside budget, but you should know where your line items are in your organization’s larger budget. 

how can you advocate for resource if you don’t even know what you’re starting with? Sue, what did you learn about funders and their understanding of CEOs challenges or their willing to support financially these types of initiatives? And do they understand what goes into effective volunteer engagement? Because I feel like sometimes nobody gets that except the volunteer manager.  

Sue: Right. You know, I was surprised by how many of the funders talked about the need to have the right conditions for good volunteer engagement. And so it was interesting. Some of them, to the point earlier, one of them had been an AmeriCorps member. 

Another couple folks had been volunteer directors, others had been involved very closely with volunteers through an executive position. And so it was interesting, not only those folks that had direct experience, but others were saying, you know what, you can’t just bring people in on a Tuesday and say, go at it. 

That you have to really have, you have to be prepared. You have to know how you’re going to engage volunteers. You have to know what they’re going to do. You have to have a sense of how that connects with the mission of the organization.  

And I think that was one of the things that was coming up was that, you know what, so there was a bit of a catch 22 here, right? You have to have the capacity to engage volunteers well, to have those volunteers improve the capacity of the organization. 

But where does that capacity come from in the first place? And so I think that was what really kind of one of the challenges. A lot of the funders were giving capacity building type grants for volunteer engagement.  

And when they were giving it, there were a few that were doing multi-year operating. It was interesting to hear that, you know, they were doing capacity building things and then also talking about, but this is something that you need to sustain in your budget over time.  

So where does that ongoing funding for the sustaining come from? They were really seeing it as it was part of operations. So it was interesting to hear. One of the funders said, you know what, I’m not hearing this from my grant partners, and if you are not going to prioritize volunteer engagement, why would I?  

I mean, she just said it that bluntly. And so I think – you know, and there was another person that said part of this issue is that so many nonprofits are in survival mode. They’re just trying to get by day to day to day, especially those who have seen a really big increase in demand.  

That’s no small thing. And there’s a lot of things that organizations have to do. Volunteerism isn’t necessarily one of those things that people are holding you to account. And so she said, I don’t know that organizations have the time to be creative about engaging the community in the work even when they want to. 

So I think it’s recognizing there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of potential that could happen, but you have to invest the time and effort, expertise to get those results.  

Tobi: Yeah, you really need to work on your program versus in your program. You need to do all that infrastructure building, and it takes – we find this with our students and our VolunteerPro members – it takes time, set aside time, dedicated time to do that infrastructure development.  

Once you do it and you have, you know, you become an architect of the volunteer experience, or you put in extra time to really suss out a really solid volunteer recruitment strategy that the dividends pay off in the long, long run. 

But it’s the folks have to bite the bullet and say like, okay, something’s gotta give, you know? Do you feel like funders understand what goes into today’s volunteer recruitment in terms of digital marketing, in terms of having a solid message, in terms of understanding your ideal volunteer you’re trying to reach?  

I feel like people don’t get that. I mean, we do a lot of work on it, and I’ve been more and more writing and talking about it on the show and in our block. But do you feel like they understand that part?  

There’s the part, you know, the volunteer experience, bringing people on, being prepared, understanding the roles, getting people prepped for the roles, acknowledging people’s work, all that good stuff. The team-building and the deployment of talent. But what about the recruitment side?  

Nathan: We got at parts of this question, I think, with two different parallel questions. One on the nonprofit CEO survey about which of these items, strategies on a list, has your organization used during the pandemic to try to keep the volunteer engagement initiative running or to improve it? 

And then another from the funders, which is what would you recommend nonprofit organizations do to improve the way that they engage volunteers? And there was an interesting, there are interesting differences here.  

I think using technology, finding new ways to use technology, I think that was cited more often by funders than it was by nonprofit CEOs. So that makes me think that maybe this was something that funders think of.  

The number one answer for funders was, nonprofits should, we should try to acquire more resources. And that was not as high on the list for actual nonprofits than it was for funders. So that, that might be a little bit of a misconception. 

Training staff was also really important to funders, and that gets at exactly what we’re talking about. The idea of integrating volunteer engagement into the whole organization, and making everybody play a role in the way that the organization works with people in the community.  

Also evaluating impact, which gets to the disconnect that we were talking about earlier between what funders would like to see in terms of measures, what organizations tend to provide on their progress reports, but I think those things, those factors I think are part of the answer to the question about what funders want to see when they look in an organization and say they know how to really engage volunteers.  

Tobi: Yeah. So, let me ask one more question of Sue, and then we have had a – we could go on and on gang! We could go on and on because this is a really great conversation and I really encourage everybody to check out this research.  

We’ll link to the places to grab the studies and the info, but Sue, based on your conversations with funders, what do nonprofits need to do more of, and what do they need to do less of when it comes to getting the resources they need? 

Sue: I think a couple things, and one I’ll just start with that may not seem kind of obvious. It’s really talking about, internally, the beliefs we have about volunteer engagement. Do we believe that volunteers are going to be a useful resource for the organization?  

Do we believe the community has the capacity and expertise and lived experience that they can be positive contributors, or do we think that volunteers are a pain in the neck that are going to prevent us from doing the real work of the organization? 

And so I think that having those conversations internally can prepare us so that – you know, we can train staff up and down, one side and the other, but if they still think that volunteers are just a problem or a time suck for us, that’s not really going to be really helpful.  

So I think having these honest conversations about, you know, what’s been your experience as a volunteer, what’s been your experience working with volunteers? Has that been positive? And if not, what kinds of things would have created a positive experience? 

What kinds of things are we doing to create those experiences for our volunteers? And then I think once you start having those conversations, you are on a better footing because it acknowledges that all volunteerism isn’t good. Sometimes it’s awful. Sometimes it’s harmful.  

And so, what do we need to do to create the conditions internally? And then I think it’s about how are we making our volunteers visible to the community, to our funders? How are we engaging with our funders? So even if the funder didn’t put it on their website and talk about it, even if it’s not mentioned on the grant application.  

If we’re talking about a program, how are we building volunteers into that program grant request? So I think that’s one way that we can make it more visible. That’s really what one of the big takeaways was. How do we make volunteering more visible?  

So when we’re talking about the outcomes of a grant, or when we’re asking for funding to support that, what kinds of outcomes will happen? Because we had funding to support the volunteer function and the volunteer contributions that go along with that mission.  

And then I think also talking about how this organization is investing in volunteer engagement so that it will be more likely to produce a meaningful experience for the volunteer, a positive and dignified experience for the community involved, and a good experience for the staff involved as well. 

So I think talking about, yes, sometimes volunteering can go sideways and be awful, and it can be a net drain on resources, but here’s what we’re doing so that our volunteerism is strategic, intentional, and effective.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. I find it interesting, like big picture, whenever there’s a downturn in funding, you know, individual giving or volunteerism, you’ll often see, the state of nonprofits or whatever, you’ll often see correlated with that downturn is a discussion of the economy.  

A discussion of the pandemic, a discussion of these external forces are the reasons why. And you know, the intimation that people aren’t generous or volunteers are flaky. And I look at that and I go, well, how come there’s never a self-reflection of maybe the reason people aren’t donating or giving their time? 

Is because the mechanisms to have them do that are not being deployed very effectively? You know, why is it always the community’s part or the community’s fault that this kind of engagement isn’t happening?  

And having had many conversations with friends and colleagues and being a volunteer myself, I, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told, well, I tried, you know, I tried to volunteer for this organization. They never got back to me. And I really want to help, you know?  

And I’m like, Ugh, dang it. Y’all are messing it up for everybody else. You know? So, but that’s just an aha moment recently where I’m like, no, it’s not always because there are organizations during the pandemic who had more volunteers than ever. 

So we can’t say that that is the only thing happening. And even in a downturn economy, there are organizations who are raising money more than ever. And so we can’t say that’s the only reason. We have to look inside our own organizations and say, where are our skills lacking? Where is our strategy lacking? 

Where are our resourcing lacking? And what can we personally do to improve on these things? And we will see better results. I mean, it’s sort of a no-brainer, but it never gets talked about in that way.  

Nathan: I think, and I know we’re short on time, but I think the civil society aspect of this, if organizations and people within nonprofits looked at these questions from a civil society lens, I think they might approach these things differently.  

Because that is really salient to funders. We heard that from both people, organizations that fund volunteer engagement and those who don’t. In fact, 70% of the non funders said that the main benefit of providing funding for volunteer engagement was that it helps nonprofits strengthen their connections with communities. 

So, I think the question that we want to ask is, why is it that so many people in general feel like it’s not worth our while to engage with other people at all? And what can we do? You know, turning it around. Instead of, why is it so hard for us to manage these voluneers, think of it as, what can we do to try to make the whole experience better for people so that it’s easier for people. 

It’s a more attractive proposition, and it’s easier for people to actually work together to solve community problems because there is a huge demand for that. There always has been. And there still is, even though people talk about the fact that civil society has seen so many downturns in recent years. 

Just like there have been economic downturns that’s related to the pandemic, too. And even though we may have sort of antisocial habits from lockdowns and experiences like that, I think there are a lot of people who are really desperate to try to reengage.  

So reaching out to potential volunteers is partly about showing them a good experience, but also just to say, Hey, we know this probably is what you’ve been looking for, and we can provide that.  

Tobi: Yeah. And it’s in our DNA to be, we are clan, we are clan type of human beings. Our species needs to clan in order to survive. So this is not, it’s not antithetical to our natures to want to be in a group and work together.  

So, this has been such a fantastic conversation. I am so appreciative of you both for being here, because it’s just been…you know, we could go on and on. Let me ask you one last question before we log off. Sue, I’ll ask you first, what are you most excited about in the year?  

Sue: I’m excited that we’re having a fuller conversation about volunteerism instead of just doing this, like I said, sunshine and rainbows approach. Let’s talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and let’s have a real conversation about what we need to do so it’s not bad.  

How do we address and mitigate for the things that are harmful and then change our processes, change the way we engage with community? So that it can be something that we, that people want to pursue. So I’m excited that there’s been a shift in the conversation. I hope we can sustain it. 

Tobi: Yeah, that’s fantastic. What about you, Nathan? What are you most excited about in the year ahead?  

Nathan: I’m looking forward a continued return to normalcy, if you want to call it that. The idea that we’re going to be probably more open than we have been in the last three years, starting when the weather starts to turn nice.  

It’s already pretty nice here in Washington, DC but when it starts to get really nice and warm, I think nationwide, I think we’ll see a lot of people showing a lot more interest in being out and about, and that’s a huge opportunity, especially if these discussions that you were talking about, Sue, were starting to take place within the sector about how to get people more engaged. 

I think we’ll find a lot of takers for that message and that’s that that’s great for the sector and I applaud that, but it’s just great for society. I mean, I think having people wanting to interact with one another and work together is what I’m most looking forward to.  

Tobi: Yeah, I mean, most anything of significance that’s happened here in the US in terms of social movements, even nonprofits themselves, were started by unpaid labor, by talented people in the community.  

Not even always talented people who are doing the best they can, but all and sometimes having special talents and perspectives and points of view that they can bring to the table, but their passion has been what’s helped move things forward.  

You can count on, you can just go through the history of our country up to and including the revolution that this was all fueled by community talent, community power, community passion. So there’s no reason why we can’t overcome this. 

And your research is so helpful in helping all stakeholders on all sides really think through how they can support and then how they can better interconnect with each other to make this happen and bring us back to where we need to be in terms of volunteerism. Because it’s going to take, like I said, at the top of the hour, a village. 

So, where can people hear more about your research, your work, and how to get in touch with you if they’re interested in learning more? We’ll start with you, Nathan. Sue, you can wrap us up.  

Nathan: I think the website where you can find all the information, including our latest report, but all the other things that we’ve done research-wise, but also just information about the Do Good Institute and all the other things that they do. 

You’re hearing a siren now, I apologize for that. But I think the address is DoGoodUMD.edu. DoGood is all one word, spelled like you would imagine. And I think there are links to research on our programs. The way we involve students, our interactions with the larger community are placed within the university, but that’s where it could all be found. 

Tobi: Awesome. How about you, Sue?  

Sue: Yes. So these research reports are also at the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement website and any other future research is going to be included there as well as with the lead researchers on that. And I’ll also be blogging about some of the results. For example, I just released a blog talking about how to have a return on investment without the investment, which is really inspired by this research which I do at Volunteer Commons.  

Tobi: Yeah. Awesome. Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a fantastic conversation. Gang. If you want to get in touch with these two esteemed guests and see their work and follow them and read their info and their thoughts and insights, you can check out our show notes page. 

We’ll have tons of links there, and as y’all come up with more research, we’ll have you back on the Volunteer Nation. How about that?  

Sue: Sounds good.  

Nathan: Sounds great.  

Tobi: Yeah. Awesome. So thanks everybody for joining us today on this really special episode of Volunteer Nation. I am so excited. I hope it gave you some inspiration, gave you some thoughts, insights, and, you know, we all need to work together to advocate for this very special thing that happens in our communities. 

It’s very unique, it’s very special, and very powerful when it’s done right. So thanks for joining us. If you liked what you heard today, be sure to share it with a friend who might be able to benefit from a little inside and inspiration. And don’t forget to subscribe, like, and comment, and we will see you same time next week on the Volunteer Nation.  

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Volunteer Nation Podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.