Volunteers and the Economic Downturn

Several studies have come out recently that have taken a look at volunteer engagement in the past year, during the deep recession.

From the CNCS Research Brief: "Volunteers and the Economic Downturn" July 2009

From the CNCS Research Brief: "Volunteers and the Economic Downturn" July 2009

One study, by Lester M. Salamon and Kasey L. Spence of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, has found that increased volunteer support has made it possible for many nonprofits to maintain or increase the number of people they serve. The researchers surveyed over 1,400 nonprofits in April 2009, primarily asking questions about the six month period between September 2008 and March 2009 — during the time the recession intensified.

During a time of intense fiscal stress for nonprofit organizations and AmeriCorps sponsor organizations, nonprofits have turned to more volunteer support. According to the research brief published by the Corporation for National and Community Service (PDF):

“One out of every three organizations reported increasing their reliance on volunteers to cope with the economic downturn between September 2008 and March 2009.

Whether because of the of the recession, or despite it, most (80% to 90%) responding organizations reported maintaining or increasing their use of volunteers, whether this was measured by the sheer number of volunteers (88% of organizations reported maintaining or increasing the scale), the number of volunteer hours (84% of organizations reported maintaining or increasing this number), the ability to recruit volunteers (83% of organizations reported increasing or maintaining this capacity), or the contributions that volunteers made (83% of organizations reported increases).”

Interestingly, 37 percent of organizations reported increases in their number of volunteers, and 39 percent reported an increase in the number of volunteer hours served — but only 15 percent of nonprofits surveyed reported an increase in their ability to manage volunteers.

These findings help to answer an important question that has come up in America’s Civic Health Index 2009 (PDF), which shows that across the country, individuals have reported a decrease in civic engagement this past year. With volunteerism as one indicator of civic engagement, authors of that report— by the National Conference on Citizenship—have wondered whether a decrease in nonprofit capacity has translated to a decrease in nonprofits’s ability to manage volunteers and offer volunteer positions. But the Johns Hopkins study findings show that in fact only 10 percent of nonprofits report a decrease in their ability to manage volunteers.

America’s Health Index 2009: Civic Health in Hard Times doesn’t claim that the number of volunteers has decreased—only that people are saying they’ve disengaged this past year. Earlier this year, a Corporation study Volunteering in America indicated that volunteer numbers are up nationally — slightly — mostly accounted for by the Millennial generation (people aged 15-30). (Read more here.)

For more results from the Johns Hopkins survey, download the Listening Post Communique no. 14 (PDF).

Has your organization relied more on volunteers this past year? Are you volunteering more, or less, than in the past?

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One thought on “Volunteers and the Economic Downturn

  1. We are definitely relying more on volunteers, both at our Board level to expand our outreach to donors, and at the administration/infrastructure level as well. While funding is down, demand for services is up, and our ability to fill those gaps through new donors is directly related to new volunteers to our agency.

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