Will the volunteers come back?

Nonprofits hope the pandemic will spark a resurgence of helping hands

In my early 20s, I spent most Sunday mornings with my sister and her kids below an overpass in downtown Salt Lake City helping Eagle Ranch Ministries make breakfast for people who were homeless. We served eggs and bacon along with hugs, laughter and heartfelt prayers for better days to come. Long before President George H.W. Bush called on Americans to be a thousand points of light, each doing their share of good in the world, I was already engaged in the cause, and proud of it.

My volunteer heart wanders, and as word spread and many more showed up to serve breakfast, I moved on, looking for other groups that needed more help than they had. Literacy Volunteers of America showed me how to teach a 54-year-old man how to read. Habitat for Humanity trusted me to tape and mud drywall. North Star Elementary let me read books with a pair of grade schoolers every week for a year. And after I had kids, our whole family helped our nondenominational church pack thousands of bags of dehydrated meals to send to what is now Eswatini, a tiny nation in southern Africa. Each experience gave me a different flavor of joy.

But as the years passed, my life got busier, my career more time-consuming and something shifted almost silently beneath my feet. I found myself donating more money but sharing less of my time. Those yearlong commitments dwindled into isolated events, when I’d pitch in for the United Way’s annual Day of Caring or do some shopping for the Sub for Santa program.

My schedule felt stuffed, and how much difference did one volunteer make anyway? Others would step up, I was sure.

What a sad way to become part of a trend.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans came out in droves to help their neighbors, but that surge peaked between 2003 and 2005, according to a report by the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland. And from that point, the number of volunteers entered a long, steady slide.

By 2015, just a quarter of Americans ages 16 and older volunteered for any kind of organization. Between 2004 and 2015, 31 states experienced significant declines in volunteering, and none saw a significant increase. By the time COVID-19 hit, the Corporation for National and Community Service found that only about 1 in 5 men and 1 in 3 women were volunteers.

The situation seemed dire, and there are certainly questions about where we’re headed as a country. But when I looked into it, I found plenty of reasons for optimism.

Nonprofits often live or die by having volunteers, who are so vital that an Independent Sector report says a volunteer hour is worth $28.54. They collect and distribute food, raise money, provide general labor or transportation, tutoring or teaching.

When the pandemic hit, nonprofits found themselves scrambling to serve a nation in crisis. “The strain on nonprofits the last couple of years is unimaginable,” says Rick Cohen, chief operating officer at the National Council of Nonprofits. Some have told his organization, the largest such network in North America, that they’ve eliminated waiting lists — not because they caught up, but rather because lists create false hope that help is coming. “We have seen many fewer volunteers over the past couple of years.”

Like many businesses, nonprofits face a workforce shortage. And because they rely on staffers to manage volunteers, some had to scale back on accepting help. Social distancing rules also meant they could accommodate fewer volunteers even if they were available. And people over 65, who are normally an important source of volunteers, faced even higher risks from COVID-19.

The Do Good Institute report found that with fewer volunteers, those who did pitch in were doing more than ever, offering both time and money to compensate for folks like me who weren’t showing up.

Of course, the numbers don’t count all the acts of kindness in a community. Shoveling an elderly neighbor’s walk or picking up a sick friend’s groceries don’t register, even though they’re valuable to others, as a Bureau of Labor Statistics’ July 2020 monthly review points out.

Cohen says the pandemic brought out the best in people, including some who ramped up efforts despite risks to their own health. And many have volunteered to help others outside of the more formal nonprofit structure, “just pitching in around their community.”

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The pent-up desire to come together gives him hope that volunteering “will come roaring back.” The rise of mutual aid groups speaks to that, Cohen says. Their informal volunteers won’t make official counts, but they do make a huge difference in people’s lives.

Many volunteers do so through their religious communities, and they don’t always get counted either.

Early in the pandemic, when attendance was falling, K2, the church in Salt Lake City, started offering more practical help, including monthly drive-up food and clothing distribution events. People were losing jobs and the need was clearly great, but so was the turnout of volunteers. Some even trained alongside staff as mentors for a marriage enrichment program, responding to the great pressure that the pandemic put on couples.

At Grace Community Church near Seattle, hundreds of members of the congregation volunteer for food drives, a drive-thru prayer ministry and a half-marathon to raise funds to provide clean water for kids overseas. “The pandemic is a wake-up call that we can’t be passive,” says Pastor Jesse Bradley. “We’re not designed to be isolated, and we’ve got to build more bridges.” 

Among traditional nonprofits, groups like BUILD — which teaches youth in underresourced communities about entrepreneurship, careers and opportunity — have seen more volunteers.

It helps that mentors and instructors for skills-based workshops can volunteer virtually.

And while many people started giving more money and less time during the pandemic, Heather White — who runs a nonprofit called One Green Thing and consults for others — now sees more people reaching out and wanting to connect in person, willing to do hands-on projects in their community.

“The pandemic taught us we are all interconnected economically and biologically in a way I don’t think many of us understood until the last two years,” she says. Volunteering lets people see each other up close, which is a powerful antidote to polarization.

Pastor Bradley agrees. “You come alive when you serve and you have purpose. Everyone has gifts, abilities and can spread their wings,” he says. “The most joyful people in the world are people who serve. We need that in America.”

Fortunately, the future looks bright. A brief from the Points of Light foundation says that millennials, the largest generation alive today, use a personal lens to assess community need. “Whereas social issues used to be something they volunteered for to help other people, they now see themselves as among those affected,” the brief reports. This generation was hit with some of the worst impacts of COVID-19, between school, work and child care disruptions. They cite mental health, social services, climate change, employment, health care premiums and wages as among their major concerns. Since the pandemic, they’re now more likely to volunteer and “think people should help their community and the world.”

Gen Z isn’t far behind. The foundation’s civic engagement survey found that generation is the most likely to get involved in the future, including by volunteering.

But for now, the shortage is real. Salt Lake County Aging Services, for example, saw an influx of volunteers and both in-kind and monetary support with the onset of COVID-19, before it all fell back to more normal levels by winter 2020. Volunteering dropped slightly last year, which was especially problematic for Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers food to homebound elderly individuals. Winters are always tough, says spokeswoman Afton January, largely because of vacations and holidays. But the agency also had trouble hiring enough paid drivers and the combination made it hard to keep the program running. She hopes warmer weather brings new volunteers.

If you want to get back into volunteering — or jump in for the first time — there’s no lack of opportunity. The IRS listed 1.54 million nonprofit organizations in 2016, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. And new groups arise as needs crop up.

Consider your passions, advises Natalie Buxton, communications director for Operation Kindness, an animal shelter in Carrollton, Texas. “Volunteering is an excellent way to not only strengthen your community by providing much-needed resources, but it’s a perfect opportunity to build relationships with the people in your neighborhood,” she says.

Experts say that fewer volunteers means more isolation and worse physical and mental health among both those serving and those who are served. But none of these benefits surprises me. I’ve experienced the boost in happiness, the sense that I was part of something bigger. I made friends, formed connections that I still have to this day, and I felt more optimistic about the world when I was surrounded by people who, like me, were trying to help others. 

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.