Episode #052: New Volunteer Research with Jennifer Bennett and Darcy Hughes of VolunteerMatch

Hey, 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 today, gang.

We are wrapping up three months of research. We kicked it off back in January with the release of our eighth annual volunteer management progress report, and in episodes 40 and 41, Jamie Gaylor and I. We just dished a little bit on what we thought about all that data. It was good stuff. And then we talked with Dr. Sue Kahl and Nathan Dietz about the state of volunteer engagement through the perspective of nonprofit executives and funders. So that was a lot of fun to talk about volunteerism from not the leaders of volunteers’ perspective, which we did in our volunteer management progress report, but from our executives, our leaders that make decisions about volunteerism and the funders who fund them.

And then we discussed new statistics on volunteering and civic life with Dr. Mary Hyde of AmeriCorps. And we talked about what are the rates of volunteering, particularly last year and when we were in the pandemic and those impacts and implications for leaders of volunteers. So that was fantastic. Today we’re going to tie it all up in an awesome bow.

We are pleased to discuss and bring to our audience how we connect hopeful and helpful data from today’s volunteers. A new research report from my friends at VolunteerMatch. So I have got Darcy Hughes and Jennifer Bennett here with me today. You guys should know Jennifer Bennett already because she is my co-host on the Time and Talent podcast.

So Jennifer, shout out. Hello, hello, hello, hello, . So we’re going to have some fun . We’re sassy y’all. So last time Jennifer came on the Volunteer Nation podcast was episode 15 where she talked about recruiting volunteers online. So check that out. And then we’ve got Darcy Hughes, who’s been working on this data and this survey. Darcy, shout out. Welcome. 

JENNIFER: Hi everybody. 

DARCY: Thank you Tobi, for having us here. 

TOBI: I’m just going to give you background. We tried to do this recording yesterday, and we just had the worst. When tech problems and you just decide like, we’re going to close it all down, we’re just going to shut it down. You just shut your computer, you walk away and you say, I give up. Technology wins. But today, friendship and volunteerism and volunteers win. And so we’re going to talk about this new volunteer research. 

I can’t wait to dig into it, but before I do that, I must introduce my guests because they’re awesome and I want you to know them. So Jennifer joined VolunteerMatch to formalize and manage the organization’s volunteer engagement program. With her breadth of experience, she is well qualified to help VolunteerMatch’s community, better recruit and engage volunteers. I can attest to that. She’s a strong believer in the importance of engaging volunteers in meaningful work and was certified in volunteer administration in 2010.

I think that was about the time I was too. She currently raises foster kittens at her home at Last Cat for home at Last Cat Rescue, and volunteers with the Justice and Diversity Center and Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco, and with the Social Justice Sewing Academy. So she’s an active volunteer as well, and she is the director of training at VolunteerMatch. So welcome Jennifer again. 

JENNIFER: Thanks, Tobi, and I’m going to give a shout out to the Social Justice Sewing Academy podcast episode that we did if people want to learn more. 

TOBI: Oh yeah, on the Time and Talent podcast. We need to link to that. So I’m going to link to that Quilting for Justice episode. So let’s talk about Darcy Hughes. She’s the content and storytelling manager responsible for newsletters for nonprofits and volunteers conducting surveys, executing marketing and sponsorship campaigns and their social media. Basically anything having to do with external communications to broader audiences. The storytelling component is really about amplifying the voices of their audiences, working with them to share great experiences that build community and inspire others to volunteer.

What a great bio, Darcy. That’s awesome. 

DARCY: Thank you. I love having storytelling in my title. 

TOBI: I know. It’s awesome. And it’s so the way of modern marketing. Isn’t it?

DARCY: Yeah, definitely. 

TOBI: Absolutely. So welcome to the pod ladies. Let’s also have you tell us a little bit about yourselves. How did you get into the work of the nonprofit sector, and what does volunteerism mean to you?

And Darcy, we’re going to kick it off with you. 

DARCY: Sure. So for me, I think it was like, if it was corporate or the nonprofit world, I was definitely always more interested, I guess in the nonprofit world. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted my work to ladder up, I guess, to a greater cause or a mission that I believed in.

And I actually first heard about VolunteerMatch when I was looking for a volunteer opportunity, and it’s just been such a great organization to work with because the mission is just so easy to believe in, connecting nonprofits and volunteers. It’s just a great cause and I think for me, for volunteering and what that means to me, I think it is that connection piece.

I think in our modern times, it might be something that a lot of people are missing is connection with each other, connection with community. And I think volunteering is a good, good remedy for a lot of that. 

TOBI: Yeah. Could not agree more. Could not agree more. Especially now, I mean, people have a connection deficit right now.

I mean, it’s like we have connection scurvy or something. We just haven’t had the vitamin C connect right in our lives. And we’re just not like, we’re kind of anemic right now and we need to have this back in our lives. It’s so part of being human. Absolutely. Absolutely. 

So Jennifer, what about you? Tell us a little bit about how you got into nonprofits, but also why volunteerism is so important to you and continues to be. I mean, you’re a super volunteer. You got it going on. 

JENNIFER: Yeah, well, when I was fresh out of college, I was thinking I was going to go to law school and that was the path that was set for me.

And I kept deferring, I deferred for my first year and it became pretty clear that that was not the direction I wanted to go in if I was not excited to actually go to law school. So I had started volunteering actually for a wildlife rescue organization here in the Bay Area, and they had a job opening and I applied and was not actually directly responsible for working with volunteers, but was sort of managing volunteers day to day.

And I guess in that sense that water finds its level. I saw a gap in the planning and coordinating and training and supporting of volunteers, and I just filled that space and didn’t really look back, honestly. The part that really resonated with me in that work, besides the work with the wildlife, was the training part of it.

I really enjoyed that. I learned, I was excited to help people learn, to get them excited about learning, to make sure that they felt comfortable with the work that they were doing. And so after I left the Wildlife Conservation Field, I went to work for the Bar Association of San Francisco coordinating pro bono work.

So helping lawyers find those opportunities to put their legal skills, their professional level skills to work, and so when I saw the opportunity at VolunteerMatch, it was sort of the best of both worlds, right? That ability to help all organizations find that connection and help those volunteers find their spots.

So volunteerism to me. I mean I put my volunteer activities in my bio because I think it’s important for those of us who lead volunteers to also volunteer to remember what it’s like to figure out what connection or what resonates for your volunteers. And I will say for me, the work that I pick as a volunteer is about solving problems that I see in my community and being able to feel like I’m taking an actionable step to do something that feels huge and feels like more than one person can solve.

So obviously I am very invested in my individual foster kittens, but overall problem is one that I think is unhoused pets, unhoused people, those kinds of needs in the community. And I think I can say for myself, I get as much out of my volunteering as I feel like I’m giving to the organizations.

And that’s also a good reminder for those of us who lead volunteers. There has to be something in it for the volunteers. There has to be something where at the end of the day, it’s not just necessarily about connecting with others or connecting with a cause, it’s that you get to the end and you might be tired.

Or you might have picked up a kitten barf for the 10th time that day. But there’s like something at the end where you’re like, yeah, I feel good about this. I feel like I’m making a difference. I know that I have impacted these individual lives. So that’s my sort of volunteerism story and why I keep doing it, because there’s something in it for me too.

TOBI: Absolutely. I could not agree more. I think when we’re in our day to day, whether we’re trainers, coaches, practitioners, scholars, whoever cares volunteer leaders, whoever cares and leads others in this field, we need to keep touch with the ground. We need to stay grounded. I think my volunteering activity also helps me do that.

It helps me remember why it all matters and get out of the day-to-day. It can be a grind, sometimes it can be tough, and so it inspires me and, and plus it’s just a lot of joy. There’s a tremendous amount of joy in volunteering and connection. I think our volunteer team, we love each other and we’re very different people, so it’s really fun to be with each other.

Before we get into the data, and we do want to switch gears and talk about this volunteer research that VolunteerMatch is gifting us to the world to understand, especially those of us who lead volunteers. We want to understand better how to serve those people who are helping our organization’s missions thrive.

But before we get into that, I want to talk about VolunteerMatch just a little bit, just because we have a global audience and we may have some folks listening who don’t know what VolunteerMatch is and what they do. So would one of you give me just a quick nutshell about what is VolunteerMatch?How long has it been around, what is it? What’s its key role in the world?

DARCY:  Yeah, sure. So VolunteerMatch has been around for 25 years. We’re actually celebrating our 25th birthday during Global Volunteer Month in April. Over the decades, we’ve connected almost 18 million volunteers to nonprofits, and that’s really just kind of the heart of what we do.

Our platform allows people to search their location or virtual opportunities. It lets them search by different cause areas that they’re interested in, different skills that they want to use. And it just pulls up a lot of opportunities that you can then apply for to volunteer at. 

TOBI: Awesome, awesome. I would also put a plug that I do a lot of coaching with organizations around their volunteer recruitment, and I will do search engine optimization and SEO audit, communications audit, and part of it’s keyword research and SEO, just making sure people show up on Google. And VolunteerMatch gang, if you can post on VolunteerMatch, you should, because you show up on page one of Google with that extra juice because the organization, the website’s been around for so many years, it has lots of juice and there’s so many people linking to it. So it’s a great way to hack getting onto page one of Google.

And so often I’ll be researching for my clients and I’ll be like, oh, there’s VolunteerMatch again. 

JENNIFER: So we also try to remind our nonprofits to keep that information up to date, because if they have an old account that maybe they don’t access, that information is still out there and still showing up in Google search results.

Because we do our own SEO optimization as well. 

TOBI: Yes. Yes you all. Keep it up to date. All right, well, let’s dive in now. We’ve talked about who we are and what we believe in, and that’s fantastic. We’re, we’re like so aligned and it’s going to be such a great conversation. Let’s talk about first, this volunteer research and what were the goals?

Why did you decide to conduct it? Who was surveyed? How was it? Just give us sort of how was the data, the methodology, the reasoning and goals behind the research. And then we’re going to dive into more of what you learned. But let’s start with that to set the stage. 

DARCY: Sure. We really just wanted to get a good pulse on volunteers, kind of their preferences, their motivations, how they find opportunities, what challenges they face, and finding opportunities. And really for the purpose of just understanding volunteers better and hopefully to create a resource that’s helpful for leaders of volunteers in understanding where volunteers are now.

TOBI: So where did you find folks? Did you ask people through your platform? Did you ask for volunteers to take the volunteer survey ? 

DARCY: Yeah, exactly. We sent a couple emails out to our volunteer newsletter and that led us, I think we had 1300 respondents. So it was a good list. 

TOBI: That’s awesome. Was it a challenge? So you got about 1300. Do you feel like it was a challenge to get respondents? Were you surprised at the volume or how did you feel about that? And the reason I ask is that I know a lot of leaders of volunteers are surveying their own volunteer teams.

Big question always is how do we get people to complete this survey? So what did you do, I guess, was it hard? Did it surprise you, and what did you do to make sure people participated fully? 

DARCY: I think because we have been around for so long, the numbers are definitely in our favor. So we have such a large email list that we can send to so that even if a small percent responds, it’s still kind of a good decent survey size. 

One incentive that we did have was we’re going to pick three respondents and make a donation to a nonprofit of their choice. And I think that probably also helped a little bit. 

TOBI: Oh, that is so smart. That is so smart. You’re really tapping into what volunteers are really motivated by. People want to give people gift cards and whatnot, and I’m like, no, that’s not why they volunteer to get gift cards, right?

I remember I did a talk once. I was hired to do a speaking event, and when they were introducing me, they also shared with me that they were donating to an organization in my name. And it just felt so good to be there speaking and having that happen. So you’re aligning exactly with your audience’s goals and frame of mind.

So that’s cool. So million dollar question, we’re not going to bury the lead in this at all. So, million dollar question, what does your recent research tell us about where volunteers are at as we come out of  nearly three years of a pandemic? What were the key takeaways? Some of the key takeaways, we’re going to talk a little bit more after the break in more detail. But what does it tell us about where volunteers are at right now?

JENNIFER: So we were surprised in a lot of ways, especially sort of coming out of that pandemic. We asked about future plans. We asked about openness to virtual volunteering. Most, a large majority of the people who took the survey volunteered in 2022, and we’re looking forward to volunteering more or with more organizations in this year.

So that’s good news. Especially, I know you mentioned, AmeriCorps, those numbers keep showing us that people are not engaging in formal volunteering in the way that they have in the past decade. But this sort of tells maybe a different story from active volunteers. Of course, this is an opt-in kind of group.

These are people who have already connected with VolunteerMatch, signed up for our volunteer newsletter, and have taken a survey. So they may not be representative of the average person, which is I think more what AmeriCorps gets to, right? That’s sort of just every person from a census perspective. So we are seeing people who maybe are already predisposed to volunteer or be active in their community, but we are also super hopeful.

TOBI: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. In the volunteering and civic life study that we we hosted a few episodes ago, volunteerism as a whole in the US had dropped seven percentage points. This was 2021, I think was the survey data was 2021, and that’s the lowest it’s been in over a decade. And following in 2016, we went up to like five percentage points.

So it was like up and down. And it is true that with your data you are, it’s a little bit skewed because it’s a captured audience that are already involved in volunteerism. Still, it’s good to know that subset and their perspectives, not only to attract new volunteers, but also to understand how to keep them motivated and engaged.

So there’s so much value to having this sort of subset of folks. In terms of demographics of the respondent, which populations did you find were most engaged in volunteerism, or what did you learn? What were kind of key takeaways from the demographic? Because I know you crosscut, you asked some demographic questions in this research

DARCY: We definitely also, the results were a little bit more, I think 60% were respondents were over the age of 55. So that’s just something to also keep in mind with the data. But we found that throughout all of the age groups, there was a similar amount of interest and excitement around volunteering.

We found that people under the age of 54 were more likely to volunteer a few times a year, whereas people over the age of 55 and plus were a few times a month. And so it was really, really the age group, 65 and plus that volunteered the most hours per month, which is around eight hours per.

TOBI: Well, that’s not surprising, right? I mean, I just know alot of my fellow volunteers where I volunteer are retirees or work part-time and this is sort of their second career, right? They got to leave their career and retire. Now they get to volunteer and they love it and they volunteer at multiple organizations.

Did you find folks were volunteering for more than one organization?

DARCY: Yeah. Actually 50% of the respondents were volunteering at two or more organizations. And the highest number demographic were people under the age of 18 were the ones more likely, also ones who are doing multiple times a year rather than multiple times a month are volunteering with more organizations.

TOBI: Yeah. Getting those service hours in for their continuing ed, right? 

JENNIFER: And I think that there’s a component of testing it out, right? By the time you’re 55 or 65, you probably know what you like and  what you’re good at, or you have some ideas. But when you’re 18, it’s all like, maybe I want to go and do physical labor stuff. I want to lift boxes and sort food. Maybe I want to read to kids at the library. Maybe I want to do arts and crafts projects at the senior citizen’s home,. I think we’re seeing that behavior show up in our survey results. 

TOBI: Yeah, which is cool. That’s very cool. It’s exploratory. And folks need to remember that these teenagers are the next generation of nonprofit employees. Some of them will go on to national service. Some of them will go on to either after national service, they’ll get into nonprofits or they’ll go to college and then go get into nonprofits or they’ll go straight into the biz. 

So I think often when you’re working with younger volunteers, it’s great to think about your volunteer opportunities as career development and how it can build in ways self-reflection, networking, in-service training, all the things that can help them if they really do have a passion that we can start to develop these nonprofit leaders, like from day one. 

DARCY: Definitely and that was true in our survey as well. We found that that same age group, one of their biggest motivators for volunteering was to build their skills and gain new experiences.

TOBI:  Awesome. Awesome. Well, hey, let’s take a break and then we’re going to dive in a little bit more into the details. So we’re going to be right back after this break with more on volunteer research insights and key takeaways with Jennifer Bennett and Darcy Hughes of VolunteerMatch. So do not go anywhere you all.

If you enjoyed this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the VolunteerPro Premium Membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging, and supporting dedicated high impact volunteer talent for your good cause. Volunteer Pro Premium Membership helps you build or renovate an effective What’s working now volunteer program with less stress and more joy so that you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward. 

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TOBI: Okay, we’re back with our discussion with Jennifer Bennett and Darcy Hughes about their new volunteer research study at VolunteerMatch. Let’s get into what the research says and how it might impact our volunteer engagement strategies. We like people to come away with some practical takeaways, so let’s talk about what did you learn about the context and characteristics of volunteer opportunities that volunteers found most appealing? Because I think when we think about job design in volunteerism, there are probably, even if you’re a Meals on Wheels organization, you’re probably going to have Meals on Wheels drivers, right?

And there are certainly new roles people can bring on. There’s also our bread and butter type of volunteer. There’s also tweaks we can make even to those bread and butter rolls that might be more appealing. So what did you learn from your volunteer respondents about what are the characteristics and and context of volunteering that really attract them the most?

DARCY: We asked the respondents about what skills they wanted to use and their options, like professional skills, technology skills, advocacy skills. But the highest, almost 80%, said that they wanted to use caring and people skills. And I think that’s the kind of thing that when creating volunteer opportunities, any position that you’re creating, it’s connecting it to how a volunteer will be connecting with others, I think is important to keep in mind.

TOBI: Anything else did you learn that was interesting? It’s so interesting to me because if you take that need, that motivation of, look, I want to use my caring and people’s skills, I want to use my interpersonal skills. That’s not how we market volunteer opportunities. I mean, I’ve done enough communications audits with my coaching clients to know that their recruitment messaging is not saying that they’re not talking anything about human connection.

It’s about the requirements. It’s about the background check, it’s about the training. It’s about you get free parking and all these perks, you get into like some free event and like none of those are landing, I don’t imagine on the hearts and minds of the people who are reading them. And I’ll say to people, well, no, duh, this is why people aren’t reacting.

Volunteers are emotional people, I mean, we all are, people are emotional. But they’re telling through this survey that they want connection. They are craving connection. They want to give of themselves in an emotional way to another person. And it’s very rare to see a posting that talks about that kind of approach.

What are you guys seeing? What are your, what are your insights or thoughts around?

JENNIFER: I say this all the time, Darcy. Probably Tobi, I probably said this on recruiting online in the previous podcast too. You have to have a why. You have to have an impact. You have to answer that question.

What’s different or better because I volunteered with your organization? These laundry lists that we see the cut and paste of a position description into VolunteerMatches field where it is. You have the opportunity to craft your story. And so many people miss that opportunity. And I think, as I said , it’s a two-way street for me as a volunteer.

I don’t think I’m unique in that, right? How am I going to connect? How am I going to make a difference? What’s in it for me in that experience, in that opportunity to connect or share or make a difference or help someone. And if you’re not telling that story in your recruitment message, you’re missing out on the people who don’t know about your organization, but are excited to learn how they can make a difference.

TOBI: Darcy, what were you thinking when you saw these results? 

DARCY: Yeah, I think it’s just like, it’s almost so obvious that we forget about it, that it’s just like, yeah, that’s why people volunteer. So I think and I get the hopeful piece of this data is like, people want to be with other people, take care of other people, feel taken care of. And that’s just kind of  the great thing about volunteering. 

TOBI: Yeah. I think not only sharing the big why. what’s the ultimate outcome? What’s the higher purpose we’re all serving when we work together, besides just the menial tasks we’re doing? Because there’s an improvement in life, right?

It’s a self-actualization exercise for volunteers. But I also think , Darcy, for your job, you do storytelling and I think it’s really painting a picture in your messaging about what does caring and action look like and feel like. So I always recommend folks in your position description, in your post, put a quote from a volunteer who talks about what it feels like to give in this context, right? 

It’s like you said, Darcy, it’s almost too obvious when we get really convoluted with our list of 50 million things, like you gotta go in the Amazon rainforest and you got to do a retinal scan and you got to do three weeks of bootcamp.

And by the way, we’re going to have to become blood brothers in order to volunteer here. And people are like, well, wait, I thought I was just giving back to my community.

DARCY: Definitely. And I feel like there can also be, I don’t know, especially with the news, just a lot of overwhelm. There’s so many things that people might feel like how can I as one person make a difference? I can’t tackle this whole problem. And I feel like this just kind of helps get back to the basics. It’s like you just start with kind of like connecting with the people around you.

TOBI: Yeah and their strengths in numbers.

JENNIFER: Absolutely. 

TOBI: According to this recent volunteer research, what were the most cited reasons people volunteer? What’s getting them off the couch and into organizations or helping online? 

DARCY: Well, number one was making a difference in the community, and number two was contributing to a cause that they care about.

So I think those might be pretty expected answers. But then, the third one was connecting with others who shared the same cause, and I thought this was kind of interesting because at the bottom, we had put in spending time with family and friends as a reason to volunteer.

And we found that wasn’t really a reason that people volunteered. In fact, it was more to connect with new people who share similar passions. And that was kind of cool to learn. And then also as I mentioned, with younger people, it was also building skills and experiences.

TOBI: So, yeah. So there was a little bit of difference between age groups on motivations to volunteer?

DARCY: Yeah but definitely making a difference in the community was definitely by far the biggest to everybody.

TOBI: So again, with messaging, it makes me think, well, are you giving evidence? Are you showing evidence that a difference is being made?

You can do that with pictures. You can do that with words. You can do that with statistics, although I don’t think you should lead with statistics. And then, connection to a cause, I think we started to believe lately that people didn’t have loyalty to causes. I remember some consultants and trainers talking about this years ago that the people have lost this loyalty to a cause, that people just want, or maybe it’s loyalty to an organization.

But they’re loyal to the cause, maybe not the organization, but once they get in your organization, if they have a fantastic experience, they can become loyal to your organization, like Jennifer, animal welfare. Ppeople can say, I’m an animal person. And those animal people, that’s what they’re going to do with their volunteering.

But once they get in an organization where they’re like, I’m an animal person and I support this particular organization, I’m a champion for this organization. And I think, , maybe 5, 8, 10 years ago, people were saying like, that’s gone. People don’t have any loyalty to anything. And I think your research is showing something different.

DARCY: Definitely. And also we found that for all the ways to volunteer people do prefer having a regular volunteer commitment on the whole. 

JENNIFER: And, and I think, we’ll, I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but I think there is loyalty to a cause, loyalty to an organization within the context of the things that make it difficult to volunteer, right? 

So what volunteers tell us what they’re looking for if your organization makes it hard to do that, then people aren’t going to stay. right? If you aren’t giving them that feedback on why this is making a difference, if you aren’t giving them the information on how this is connecting to the cause or solving a problem, they’re going to go to another organization who is.

TOBI: Right. Yeah. It’s interesting to think about, Darcy, you just mentioned the common mythology, and I’m going to call it out as a mythology right now because I hear it a ton. People don’t want to volunteer regularly. They only want episodic opportunities. They only want to volunteer once in a while. You didn’t find that, did you?

DARCY:Yeah, people preferred the regular commitment and definitely a lot more as people get older. I think what might be challenging for your younger people too is if you’re transitioning, you don’t know where you’re going to. I think it can be a little bit more unsettled your life and your routine. So, it can be harder to make that commitment that’s more regular. 

I don’t think it’s from a lack of wanting that, because I do think that everybody wants to feel like part of a community and that usually is more likely to happen if you’re volunteering at the same place rather than a bunch of different places. But I think a lot of other life factors can come into play. 

TOBI: Yeah, absolutely. I think too, just regular, when you’re working regular shifts, you come across the same people, you have a chance to make friends, get to know people. Get to know your clients if you’re doing direct service, get to know your job really well.

So I found that really interesting that I don’t think we should assume that nobody wants to volunteer regular shifts anymore, but people’s lives. And I think you’re right, when we really think about students every semester or every quarter, their personal schedules are changing. 

And they have to shift, they’re, they’re doing different sports during different seasons. They’re changing schools and moving out of state or into another city or taking on a part-time job. 

I’ll hear people say, we have some student volunteers. How do I keep them coming back? And I go, you don’t. Let them fly. They’ll come back some other time when they have a more steady life. But right now you need to just let them fly.

DARCY: Yeah, and I think it’s also like showing that they value your time as an organization because they don’t want to make a commitment that they know they can’t keep up with. 

TOBI: Yeah, I think it’s great. It is hopeful research. Let’s switch gears and talk about challenges. Jennifer, you started talking a little bit about challenges. What are the biggest challenges you were hearing from volunteers in this volunteer research about when they’re seeking places to serve? What are barriers that nonprofits need to remove? 

JENNIFER: So our biggest challenges that volunteers shared with us were organizations that didn’t get back to them after they connected on VolunteerMatch. 

TOBI: Oh, that is killing me. It’s like a knife to the heart. Can I just, can I just rant for one minute. Because gang, when you don’t get back to people when they’re expressing a want and a need to help, you are not only ruining it for your organization, you’re ruining it for other volunteer organizations because people get a bad taste and they’re like, look, I tried to help. And I was rebuffed like, when you don’t respond, it’s not taken as like, oh, I’m just going on with my life.

Because people stopped and thought and considered and planned and said, okay, here’s some things I can sacrifice in my schedule to give time to this organization. I’ve thought this through. I want to help. And then they hear nothing crickets, and now they’re like, volunteerism, It’s not all that. I’m not going to do it, and then every other organization loses out too. Okay, I’m done.

JENNIFER: The other challenge, which builds a little bit on what we were just talking about is the difficulty in finding a schedule that works. And so while we did see ongoing opportunities, I don’t think that that means no flexibility.

And the other thing that we saw were shifts of two to four hours so somebody could carve out a couple of hours on an ongoing basis. I don’t think that means, , five, six hours every Wednesday at 1:00 PM from now until the end of time, right? So ongoing with the context that this is not an entire day, this is not something that can’t allow for going to appointments or going on vacation or that kind of thing that it really looks like sort of slotted into the other activities that people have going on during their day.

TOBI: That was a surprise to me. Repeat that stat about the hours that they prefer to serve, the chunk of time. What should the shift look like?

JENNIFER: Two to four hours was the most popular option. 

TOBI: See, gang. People are like, oh no. They do. 

DARCY: Yeah. And I was surprised that one of the options was five to seven hours, which I think was the longest option that we gave, and there were still a lot more people who selected that answer than like micro volunteering opportunities, which we had as under an hour. So I know that was a big trend and I haven’t heard about it much lately, but it seems like people would rather give even more time than four hours than less than an hour. 

TOBI: Yes, yes, so helpful to know and understand. And helping people set aside time. And it’s true, Jennifer. I’ve asked volunteers before, what stops you from volunteering? And they’ll say, I don’t want to sign my life away. And I always say give people a beginning, middle, and an end with a regular schedule that they get, have some say in choosing. 

And then people will say, we can’t find anybody in the daytime. And I’m like, okay, wait a minute. There are so many gig workers nowadays. Are you kidding? They just want to get out of the house every other week for a few hours, if you present it in that way. There’s just a lot of different ways.

JENNIFER: And I think we need to think about tenure with a reasonable hat on, right? That especially for our younger volunteers who may, we mentioned students having schedules that change every semester or every quarter.

I think when you’re a young professional, your time is not really your own either, right? You are not the decider of when you work, usually. You are not the decider of what your priorities are within work or life. You have a boss, you have a manager. And so again, when you’re older and you’re more experienced in your career, you can say, hey, I’m taking this time off, or I’m going to be out of pocket for the next three hours. When you’re 24, it’s harder to say that, right?

So when we expect that that time commitment is going to last forever, we don’t check back in after three months or six months or the school year, and we just assume that that’s going to work for everybody or that everybody’s going to keep going. I think it’s our responsibility as leaders of volunteers to make sure on a regular basis that our volunteers are doing work that matters to them.

Because that was the other piece that we heard, especially from our younger age groups, is that they have a really hard time finding something that’s fulfilling to them, something that resonates with them. 

TOBI:  Yeah, for sure. Darcy, anything else on challenges that called your attention? 

DARCY: I don’t, I don’t think so. I mean, we asked rate how hard or how easy it might be, and we found that it is 75% said it was easy or just required some effort to find an opportunity that suited them. And so I think it is just that other 25, the other quarter that the biggest challenges are unresponsive organizations and scheduling conflicts.

TOBI: Yeah. Got it, got it. So folks are finding on VolunteerMatch, they’re finding opportunities. So now as an organization and people are volunteering for more than one organization, they’re willing to work a regular shift. They’re willing to work two to four hours. This is all good news. I’m not hearing a lot of, like, we don’t care about organizations and causes. Sorry, gang doors closed on volunteerism, right?

JENNIFER: No, and the piece we didn’t hit on yet that I think is important to at least mention is people are interested in exploring virtual opportunities. So if you’re having trouble finding that schedule in person, I think there’s an opportunity for organizations and leaders of volunteers to think creatively about how they can design those ongoing, fulfilling virtual opportunities.

TOBI: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. In fact, yesterday or the day before, I wrote a blog post on volunteer recruitment. It’s on volpro.net. I’ll have to link to it in the show notes, but I went in and I looked at Google Trends. Because after looking at the sort of dismal volunteer participation rates nationally, so this says what’s actually happening in terms of people giving time.

But do people want to give time? In your data saying, yes, of course. It’s a select group of people that they’re volunteers, volunteering to complete a volunteer survey. So it’s a select group of people. But I went on Google Trends and I did volunteer opportunities as a keyword.

And I watched it drop, and then I watched it go back up. And it didn’t drop very much during the pandemic. In fact, I also did a research, just did a review of online volunteer opportunities and that actually spiked during the pandemic. And it has not gone down to pre-pandemic levels in terms of like the data trend line. 

And so I was like, well, wait a minute now people are looking on Google. That is an intent search term, volunteer opportunities. That’s an intent. The intent is I’m looking for a place to volunteer.

And online volunteer opportunities is the intent is I’m looking for an online place to volunteer. There’s not any crazy downward trend. In fact, overall it’s on the upswing. 

JENNIFER: So we sought 25%, a quarter of the people who took the survey have tried virtual volunteering, and of the people who hadn’t 40% said that they would be interested in exploring that as an option.

TOBI: Ah, yes. So the gig work is extending into volunteerism, right? The remote worker? 

JENNIFER: Yeah, I think so especially our knowledge workers as all of us do this from home. You, me and Darcy, we don’t have a commute. We have maybe some flexible time, the start or end of our day where we might be able to volunteer from our home offices.

So I think that’s a thing to think about. And there are challenges, right? And we can go into that in another time, managing volunteers that you never see in person, right? But many of us got good at that over the pandemic or we put some pieces in place and so I am hopeful about that. This idea that we, many of us found virtual volunteer opportunities during the pandemic because it was the only option, but the idea that it has some weight to it, that it has an innovation that we will stick with as a field or as an industry, to me, is exciting.

TOBI: Yeah. I mean, I volunteer online every Saturday morning, we do our Knoxville Area Gardening Tips live show on Facebook. And we’ve been doing it for the entire pandemic. We’re still doing it. We have guests, we do presentations. And our Facebook group has over 16,000 followers in East Tennessee.

And we’ve won awards. And I hardly ever see my team, but we got together for a dinner a few months ago. I said, gang, we need to get together in person. And we get together maybe once a year and do some planning on content, but we feel very tight as a team. We’ve seen each other around. We know each other. We’ve been in training together. We connect on text. We feel like a team. There’s a lot of love in our team and we hardly ever see each other in person. And it’s not, people believe that working online and interacting online is not possible to form human relationships.

And that’s just like entirely wrong internally. I mean, we’re all friends. Well, let’s wrap up this conversation. This has been so fantastic. I hope it is giving our audience some hope. The title,  How We Connect Hopeful and Helpful Data from Today’s Volunteers. A new research report from VolunteerMatch. So you’re all going to want to check that out. 

We’re going to post a link in the show notes, but I also just want to wrap up with implications. We’ve talked a lot about implications for volunteer involving organizations throughout our talk today, but are there any strategies, paradigms, thoughts that you want to leave people with that they should really consider? I mean, we’ve given lots during, but there might be something lingering that you’re like, I want folks to remember. 

JENNIFER: Well, the virtual volunteering, I think for me that was very interesting as something that volunteers are continuing to want to opt into. I think the piece about fulfilling work, especially for our younger volunteers and, and probably gen Alpha that’s coming up as well. They want to make good use of their time, right? So some of those more task-based roles without that connection to the cause, without that context for the work, if you’re struggling to find people to do that ongoing work, is your ongoing work actually fulfilling and making a difference or is it just busy work?

I think those are some things to think about. The other piece as it says in the title is the hopeful piece, right? While this is a select subgroup of people, those people are active, they want to continue to volunteer. They want to volunteer in new ways, they want to volunteer with new organizations.

So that piece to me is maybe a reminder that if you aren’t finding the volunteers that you need, maybe we need to look and do a little bit of housekeeping or some creative storytelling. It’s not just a laundry list of tasks. It’s what’s in it for the volunteers. How does this help, again, my question, what’s different or better because this volunteer has come to your organization. 

I think that that’s really where I’m focusing on how can we do a better job at VolunteerMatch to educate, to make it easier to put this kind of information into your online recruitment message. And how can we help organizations think about maybe shaking some things up and the pandemic helped us do some of that.

If you were thinking about virtual volunteering, don’t put that back. Don’t take that away. Like think about that more. If you’re thinking about more flexible opportunities, how can we lean into that? Because the motivation and the volunteer’s desire to help is there. 

TOBI: Yeah, absolutely. Darcy, what are the implications when you were looking through this data, you’re like,  what people got to know this.

DARCY: I think Jennifer said it so well, but to emphasize that, I think when you’re creating those volunteer opportunities, it shouldn’t be as if you’re trying to convince anyone to volunteer. It’s like really thinking about the person who wants to volunteer.

Because this data is from people who really want to volunteer. So you don’t have to treat it like a job description. It’s appealing what volunteers are really motivated by what their decision factors are, what their preferences are, and just really listening to them and, and listening to those needs. It just makes it a smoother process of recruiting volunteers. 

TOBI: Yeah. And I couldn’t agree more. When you recruit everybody, you try to recruit everybody, you recruit nobody. And so I’ve talked about this I think on the pod before, but we develop personas.

We help our students and our members develop personas of ideal volunteers so that they can call them out in the subject line of their posting. Do you love classic cars? Then maybe you’ll become a driver and help drive our patients around or who need to go to doctor’s appointment.

Are you calling all dog lovers? We need dog walkers. I mean, it’s just we want to prioritize because when people are scrolling, it’s a thumb stopper. If somebody’s scrolling through their phone, looking at VolunteerMatch opportunities, volunteers needed, volunteers needed. It’s like they all look the same. And if you’re a dog lover and all of a sudden it’s like calling all dog lovers, that’s a thumbs stop. 

You’re going to stop and you’re going to click on that because you’re like, oh, they’re talking to. So I think you’re absolutely right, and I think even if you’re going to go general, if you can speak to, do you have a caring heart? Do you want to connect with others?

I mean, even just that, trying to change it from, from calling volunteers desperately needed. Nobody cares. Sorry. Nobody cares how desperate you are. Plus it’s negative social proof. It calls into question whether you’re worthy of being supported.

JENNIFER: Yes, yes, yes. I think all those things are true. We also talk about volunteer personas at VolunteerMatch. If you don’t know who you’re looking for, then  you’re not going to find the right volunteers. In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, a friend to all is a friend to none.

DARCY: So, Jennifer’s going to the concert.


TOBI: Oh, you go, girl. 

JENNIFER: I’m on my way to Taylor Swift. So Eras Tour, here I come. I’m doing a lot of listening to Taylor Swift.

TOBI: Oh, how fun. Well, okay, so you guys, this has been great. This has been a fantastic conversation. I hope it’s inspired everybody. You guys got to get audience listeners, you all need to get your hands on this report and really digest. Digest and take it in and see how it can change your strategy a little bit. 

So I really appreciate you taking time out, not one but two days. We had to do a redo today. We’re doing it. It’s great. And I just want to have one last question before we wrap up. What are you most excited about in the year ahead?

DARCY: Well, I guess from my own role, I’m just super excited for the storytelling component of my work and just coming up with new systems and ways to gather stories and we just got this new system that will allow volunteers or leaders of volunteers to make short little testimonial videos or just type short little to prompts that we give.

And I’m just really excited. There’s so many stories out there, I think, we’re the connection platform, but we don’t always hear about the great outcomes. So just really bringing that to the forefront and, and seeing those stories myself. I’m really excited for it. 

TOBI: Yeah, and we are probably going to have to have you come back and talk about how you’re gathering stories.

I’m, I’m going to circle back because I think that’s something we all can learn how to do better. Jennifer, what are you most excited about in the year ahead besides Taylor Swift, which you are.

JENNIFER: I know. I’m very excited. I glitter glued my own converse high tops for this concert. That’s how excited I am. Besides Taylor Swift, I am very excited about what’s in the future for a VolunteerMatch. So I would say don’t sleep on VolunteerMatch. We have new leadership. We have what Darcy is point at the beginning, we’re celebrating a quarter of a century, but there’s some exciting things happening and I’m excited for us.

I’m excited for us to be sort of back out and about. We’ll be going to some conferences this year, so look for us there, new opportunities, new partnerships. We’re doing some panel discussions coming up in April about this data, so we’ll include that information as well to make sure that we’re starting some of these conversations.

We’re pulling people together. We are taking advantage of where we sit in the space to help leaders of volunteers and to help volunteers better connect. 

TOBI: And by this time I think I will have joined you on a webinar on this topic. 

JENNIFER: Yes. And that will be recorded and on the page. So we also have two more coming up on April 1 on generations, we’re going to be talking to AARP and youth volunteer course. So were going to talk about differences and similarities, and then we’re still putting some details together for one on virtual volunteering, but that’ll come up later in the month as well.

TOBI:  Awesome. I think we’re going to talk about the overlap between the volunteer management progress report and these volunteer research data. It’s going to be fun to see.

JENNIFER: Where can we meet in the middle. 

TOBI: Yeah, where can we meet in the middle. It’s going to be good. Awesome. Awesome. So how can people learn about the research? We talked about it. We’re going to post links. Is there anything else you want to promote or let people know about when it comes to VolunteerMatch and this volunteer research? 

DARCY: Well, yeah, we’ll share our landing page, which will have the report as an ebook, the recording of the panel. I think we’ll also have some kind of way to get feedback and have an ongoing open conversation about what people are seeing. I think that might be in our LinkedIn group, which is Leaders of Volunteers with VolunteerMatch. So I can share that as well. And yeah, I think, I think that’s it. 

TOBI: Fantastic. This has been great. Thank you all for listening. We appreciate each and every one of you in our audience, all of you out there doing the good work to promote volunteerism, to get people in the community engaged, it’s just fantastic. It is a labor of love for all of us. We all know that, and I’m so glad you’re part of this Volunteer Nation community. 

If you like this episode, would you do me a favor and share it with a friend or colleague who could use a little inspiration? I think this episode is full of inspiration, and if you’d do us a favor and drop us a comment like us, share us, et cetera, that will help the algorithm pump us to the top so that we can reach more leaders of volunteers and people who care about volunteerism like you.

So thanks everybody for joining us. We will see you next. Same time, same place on the Volunteer Nation. 

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