recruitment of volunteers Opinion: Is Now the Time to Push the Pause Button on the Recruitment of Volunteers?  

The recruitment of volunteers appears to be a growing challenge for nonprofits in the current climate, as the COVID-19 pandemic wages on and the public is less willing to put themselves in harm’s way. 

We’re hearing from our VolunteerPro community members and training and consulting clients that it’s getting harder and harder to stop the wave of volunteer resignations. 

But that’s not the case for everyone 

Others have pushed the pause button on volunteer involvement and furloughed leaders of volunteers for the time being.  

But the most strategic organizations have been able to pivot to working remotely with volunteers, keeping them in the loop and engaged. Many have embraced the benefits of technology as a helpful tool to keep connections with their current volunteers and continue to attract new supporters. 

The Multi-faceted Benefits of Volunteerism in the
Current Climate

There are a number of reasons to continue to focus on the recruitment of volunteers.  But is the public interested in volunteering right now? 

Certainly, there is no end to the many volunteer opportunities available.  

The volunteer listing service VolunteerMatch has now separated out virtual and COVID-19 related volunteer postings and has thousands to offer. They can be completed anytime and from anywhere, making them a flexible choice for people who are sheltering in place, but have a little time on their hands. 

And, with millions of unemployed people around the world, you might expect that there would be a run on volunteering. 

But research shows that unemployed people volunteer at LOWER rates than folks who work part-time or full-time jobs 

Part of the reason may be that volunteerism is inherently a social enterprise. Some argue that the people who lose their jobs lose the bridging and bonding social ties with their former co-workers, making unemployed people less likely to get involved in civic engagement and political participation when they aren’t working.  

What’s more, unemployment can also be associated with feelings of shame, embarrassment, and resentment which causes some to retreat into even more isolation and thus don’t have the chance to learn about new opportunities. 

Further, the coronavirus pandemic has also created a crisis of social isolation, in general. Stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and social distancing have only exacerbated the serious problems of social isolation and loneliness that existed before the pandemic even hit. 

Scientists point to the significant negative impacts of isolation on human beings, who have the urge for community and collaboration built into our very DNA. Some health experts are promoting a “social in all” policy agenda to combat the social isolation brought about through the pandemic through a multi-sector approach that includes health, transportation, education, housing, employment, food and nutrition, and environment.  

However, despite the many researched and documented health benefits of volunteerism, including reduced feelings of isolation, volunteerism is missing from the national policy discussions.  

What’s more, as many organizations shutter their volunteer programs and furlough staff, they appear to be unaware that they’ve effectively eliminated a lifeline of support for their dedicated volunteer corps. 

Recruitment of Volunteers: Still a Priority 

We believe that the recruitment of volunteers to serve their neighbors and communities is still a priority. 

As a volunteer myself, I’ve been able to transition my service online and find that regular volunteering helps me stay connected with some sense of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic world. 

For months, we have encouraged nonprofits to re-think their approach to volunteerism during the pandemic and continue to find creative ways to engage and involve volunteers online 

We continue to urge organizations to keep their supporters – both donors and volunteers – in the loop. It’s both good for volunteers, but it’s also good for the resilience and sustainability of nonprofits 

Volunteers are often an “invisible force” of support, a safety net that organizations don’t realize is so vital until it is gone.  

Many nonprofits assume that “furloughed volunteers” will remain loyal and will be ready to return when the pandemic passes. But, with no clear end in sight, that is a huge gamble. 

More than likely, organizations that leave volunteers aside for the short term will be unable to recoup this loss in the long term. When they’re ready to renew full operations, they may need to start building again from scratch. 

What’s more, the public may need to continue to flex its “volunteering muscle” in order to keep it in shape for service.  If volunteering rates fall precipitously during the months ahead, it’s unclear when and how we will be able to rebuild to the record participation rates we’ve experienced in recent history. 

And, with a lack of participation, comes a lack of deep understanding of an organization’s needs and the ability to mount grassroots advocacy campaigns from the most highly engaged group of stakeholders, volunteers. 

Finally, in addition to the existing needs for nonprofits, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to create new opportunities for service in community education, contract tracing, etc.  

In addition, the many natural emergency events of 2020 (wildfires, tornados, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.), have left many in need. Emergency response and disaster relief volunteers will continue to be needed.   

Even if disaster relief is not part of an organization’s mission, they may be affected or be called upon to support or collaborate with a neighboring nonprofit or community by supplying short-term volunteers. 

To survive, it will take a community working together, and volunteer organizations with expertise to leverage in a crisis. 

According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, in the first half of 2020, more than $11.9 billion in grants and funding were awarded for COVID-19 globally in pledges, commitments, and awards by corporations and foundations. This far surpasses funding for any other disaster in recent history. 

Individuals are also likely to give during times of disaster.  Approximately 30% of households in the United States made a disaster-related donation from 2017 to 2018, and about 12% volunteered to help with disaster aid efforts during that period. 

However, little is currently known about the level of volunteerism during the COVID-19 crisis and how volunteers are being deployed around the world, both in face-to-face and virtual contexts. 

The Recruitment of Volunteers: More Important Than Ever 

Volunteerism is part of the fabric of communities.  It is how people stay connected, live their values, and make a difference. Millions of people around the world have engaged in both formal and informal volunteer efforts. 

What would happen if it all went away? How would our economies fare? How about community cohesion? How would the productivity and impact of the third sector suffer? 

All important questions to ask at this crucial crossroads. 

There will still be people who will volunteer and still organizations that are strategic enough to understand the true power and value of volunteerism. To them, volunteers are not an “invisible force.”  Rather, they are a force to be reckoned with. 

But not everyone understands the need to maintain the ecosystem of volunteerism and how fragile it may be. 

Forward-thinking social scientists have described volunteerism as a renewable resource that can be grown and recycled, but that can also be depleted if unsupported or mismanaged. 

In my opinion, there is much at stake if we give up on the recruitment of volunteers … 

  • Organizations may lose valuable talent (both volunteer and employee) 
  • Organizations may lose the community connections and networks that volunteers bring 
  • Organizations may lose their most vocal grassroots champions to more active causes 
  • Organizations may lose their ability to bounce back quickly without a ready volunteer corps 
  • Volunteers’ social isolation may increase and mental and physical health decline 
  • Volunteer rates may be negatively affected into the future 
  • Community needs may go unmet due to a lack of human resources to help 

If we are able to concurrently hold a view of existing emergency needs, but also maintain a 30,000-foot view of the sector, we can more easily see volunteerism’s vital importance to our communities. 

Recruiting and engaging volunteers isn’t something we should give up on.  It’s something we should lean into. But we will also need to do so safely. This may mean that we need to embrace new technologies and consider new, more flexible roles for volunteers. 

It also means that we may need to build bridges to greater collaborations with our fellow nonprofits so that volunteers can flow freely between organizations and be deployed to help the collective efforts necessary to weather the inevitable challenges ahead.  

In a future world, we will need to work in community more, not less.  

And, volunteers are the passport to do so. 

Now is not the time to give up on them or the immense possibilities of what they can achieve. 

What Do You Think? 

Are volunteers important right now? Why or why not? 

Add your comments below.  We’d love to hear your point of view!