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Volunteering Truth

For nonprofits volunteering is often viewed as a cornerstone in which the rest of the organization is built. However, to most people there tends to be a great deal of dysfunction in dealing with and having a large group of volunteers. Board members for most nonprofits are non-paid and serve as volunteers. The word volunteer itself according to Webster means a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for service or undertaking. If you are a paid staff person in an organization understanding what role exactly a volunteer should or should not take is often difficult at best to discern. Every organization is different and every need is unique.

In my experience as a consultant I have seen nonprofit organizations view volunteers in two very different ways. Nonprofits in general either want and freely accept volunteers or are clueless and have no idea why they would want to have a group of volunteers. For the latter a volunteer is someone that is more of an annoyance because the job at hand does not really match with the hours and the limited time commitment a person is willing to give. At one time in history the words “community service” were seen in a positive light. Now unfortunately the term is used more in referring to people involved in the court system and are made to volunteer as part of their sentence to “give back” to society by giving time!

Ironic isn’t it?

Another void often missed in dealing with volunteers it what it actually costs! In the
for-profit world larger companies know to the penny what it costs them to train an employee. Yet in the nonprofit arena what it truly costs to screen, place and train a volunteer is ignored. On the surface it is very easy to be overly critical of an agency who shuns volunteers and often broad statements are made that to be a successful nonprofit you MUST have a large number volunteers in your organization. But is this really truth or fiction?

To understand the real role volunteers have in America we need to look at the hard data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts an annual study on the volunteer rates in the U.S.


The volunteer rate declined by 0.5 percentage point to 26.3 percent for the year ending in September 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. About 62.8 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2009 and September 2010. The volunteer rate in 2010 was similar to the rates observed in 2007 and 2008.

At first glance the numbers seem huge pegging the number of people that volunteer in the US at 62.8 million people which is actually down from 64.5 million people in 2004. However, looking at the entire population as a whole in the country you are looking at only 26.3%. So this means 73.7% of Americans do not volunteer! Which begs the question, why? There are obviously a myriad of reasons and for now I ’d rather leave those facts for others and look at the current facts:

Nonprofits in the United States are surviving with only 26.3% of the population actually volunteering!

Ok, now you know that only 26.3% of the population volunteers, what does that really mean in terms of time actually spent on an annual basis?

According to the report Volunteers of both sexes spent a median of 52 hours on volunteer activities during the period from September 2009 to September 2010. Median annual hours spent on volunteer activities ranged from a high of 96 hours for volunteers age 65 and over to a low of 40 hours for those 16 to 34 years old.

In the nonprofit arena a great deal of time and energy is focused on trying to attain the “perfect nonprofit board”. Part of the perfection in many individual’s mind is making sure that the nonprofit board represents the community you serve. In doing this demographic information is reviewed with a focus specifically looking at race and sex.

Among the major race and ethnicity groups, whites continued to volunteer at a higher rate (27.8 percent) than did blacks (19.4 percent) and Asians (19.6 percent). The volunteer rate of whites and blacks declined from the prior year. Among Hispanics or Latinos, 14.7 percent volunteered in 2010, the same rate as in 2009.

The volunteer rate of women decreased from 30.1 percent to 29.3 percent in the year ending in September 2010, while the volunteer rate for men, at 23.2 percent, was essentially unchanged. However, women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics.

By age, 35-to-44 year olds were the most likely to volunteer (32.2 percent). Persons in their early twenties were the least likely to volunteer (18.4 percent).

As in earlier years, married persons volunteered at a higher rate (32.0 percent) in 2010 than did those who had never married (20.3 percent) and those with other marital statuses (20.9 percent). Although the volunteer rate of parents with children under age 18 decreased to 33.6 percent from 34.4 percent in the prior year, parents remained substantially more likely to volunteer than persons without children (23.5 percent).

Individuals with higher levels of educational attainment engaged in volunteer activities at higher rates than did those with less education. Among persons age 25 and over, 42.3 percent of college graduates volunteered, compared with 17.9 percent of high school graduates and 8.8 percent of those with less than a high school diploma. (1)

Lastly, many national nonprofits i.e. United Way and the Red Cross to name a few, as well as large for profit corporations are spending millions of dollars for the sake of striving to be more diverse in their workforce and/or volunteer base. I honestly think these efforts are, for the most part, very sincere in an effort to be a mirror of the communities they serve and to be seen as inclusive. However, the number of 501c3 nonprofits in the United States totaled over one million! So, looking at the above facts you can clearly see that the pool of volunteers to pick from is relatively small.

Now you know the truth!


(1) The Bureau of Labor Statistics issues an annual study on volunteer rates in the U.S.

The following is a list of additional resources:

Managing Volunteer Programs -by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

Energize, Inc. is an international training, consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism since 1977. It is the largest Web site in the world designed for leaders of volunteer efforts, with over 1200 free pages of volunteer management information, including an online library, volunteer-related quotations and recognition ideas, links to worldwide professional organizations, a bookstore with over 80 titles, and a monthly Hot Topic essay from president, Susan J. Ellis. Energize provides online training in volunteer management through its Everyone Ready® program. Sign up for the free monthly Update and receive tips and quotes directly to your in-box.

Volunteer Match is the nonprofit, online service that helps interested volunteers get involved with community service organizations throughout the United States. Volunteers enter their ZIP code on the VolunteerMatch web site to quickly find local volunteer opportunities matching individual interests and schedules. This simple, effective service has already generated hundreds of thousands of volunteer referrals nationwide.

Futures Program is a world-class software system designed to recruit and manage volunteers at the elementary, middle and high school levels. It is a platform which links a volunteer core together for an entire school district, encouraging cooperative community efforts and ultimately benefiting the students of user schools.

board netUSA is the unique website revolutionizing the way nonprofit boards and new leaders find each other. If you’re an individual interested in board service or a nonprofit looking for a new board member … you’ve come to the right place.

Network for Good is a nonprofit organization dedicated to using the Web to help people get more involved in their communities – from volunteering and donating money, to speaking out on issues you care about.

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