Restrictions wrought amid the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the volunteer corps that many nonprofit and community outreach groups rely on, bringing some organizations to a monthslong standstill. And for others, the lack of volunteer access shuttered operations for good.

Earlier this month, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that a 2020 study by Fidelity Charitable found that two-thirds of volunteers decreased their activity or stopped volunteering entirely after the pandemic began. And, as many as 30% of managers of volunteers got reassigned or laid off in the six months after COVID-19 struck, according to a 2021 report by VolunteerPro.

Locally, the depth and breadth of those impacts were captured in a report issued last year by the Utah Nonprofits Association. The assessment detailed a perfect storm of challenges including steep declines in charitable giving, critical staffing challenges and a decrease in volunteer hours alongside soaring demand for the services and support provided by Utah nonprofits.

“This perfect storm of increased demand, reduced funding, and staff cuts as a result of COVID-19 and its accompanying economic crisis left nonprofits scrambling to provide critical services to society’s most vulnerable populations,” the Utah Nonprofits Association report reads. “Cutting both staff and services in a time of increased demand creates ongoing and far-reaching consequences.” 

But Utah’s status as the No. 1 state in the nation when it comes to volunteerism appears to have bolstered the groundwork for a much-needed recovery when it comes to giving the gift of time. Utah organizations are reporting they learned a lot as pandemic conditions forced them into finding creative solutions for volunteer recruitment and retention, but have emerged with new tools and approaches and are seeing the volume of volunteer hours finally approaching pre-pandemic levels.

Volunteer Barbra Benward brings a cook box to a client at the Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. The cook box is filled with different foods and given to clients who have access to a kitchen. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Crossroads Urban Center Executive Director Glenn Bailey said his organization, which operates emergency food pantries and thrift stores alongside community advocacy work, has relied on the work of 400 or so volunteers each year to deliver its services. Bailey said the demographic of Crossroads volunteers changed significantly throughout the public health crisis but new processes have led to a more diverse volunteer group.

“What we’ve tried to do coming out of the pandemic is open up our volunteer group a little more,” Bailey said. “We have new online tools, offer virtual options for things like orientation and it’s allowed more people to participate.”

Bailey said the time donated by those who volunteer is absolutely critical in allowing Crossroads to help as many community members as possible.

Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity, likewise, depends on volunteers to help construct the homes it donates to local families in need and saw its efforts grind to a halt in the midst of the pandemic.

Salt Lake Valley Habitat’s senior director of operations Carin Crowe said her organization currently has five projects under construction and has almost has many volunteers stepping up now as it did before COVID-19 struck.

But Crowe said operations were completely shut down in March 2020 and stayed that way for months, and when the organization finally got back to work, was only able to accommodate smaller volunteer groups. That was the status until this summer, when Habitat’s work crews were finally back to their full complement.

“Volunteers are a tremendous resource for our programs,” Crowe said. “And, when we’ve been able to return to full capacity because of their presence.”

Tylar Hiss, left, and Melanie Jones volunteer at the Utah Food Bank in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

While still striving to get back to the volunteer volumes that it saw before the pandemic, Utah Food Bank President/CEO Ginette Bott said her organization is making its way to that goal and, in the meantime, is finding new ways to solve its challenges.

“For us, we don’t want to ever be in a position where people don’t get help from the Food Bank because we don’t have volunteers,” Bott said. “We’ve been making it work and will continue to make it work.”

Bott said the food bank relies on volunteer help from a wide range of sources including individuals and families as well as big groups that are typically organized by companies, churches or other community groups. In order to accommodate more opportunities for large group volunteer projects, the food bank has just added 26,000 square feet of new space near its South Salt Lake facility and is now able to host much bigger group volunteer gatherings.

“We recently acquired the warehouse to our west and have expanded our storage space,” Bott said. “This gives us space to accommodate larger groups of volunteers and should help accommodate local companies and groups that want to do bigger volunteer gatherings and team building events.”

The Utah Food Bank is a 117-year-old organization that last year distributed 58.5 million meals via a statewide network of 216 partner agencies located in all 29 counties with distribution centers in South Salt Lake, St. George and Springville.

Bott said Utah’s reputation as a top state for volunteering is well deserved and she hears regularly from colleagues in other regions who are envious of the giving environment that makes the Beehive State a “great place for nonprofits to accomplish their goals.”

“I will tell you that when we put out the call for help, Utah rallies,” Bott said. “They will always answer the call for help.”

Numerous assessments have identified Utah as the top state for volunteering, including a report released earlier this year by 24/7 Wall Street, based on data gathered by Americorps. The ranking effort found more than half of Utah residents volunteered in the last year for a total of almost 140 million hours.

Other Utah data points from the Americorps “Volunteering in America” report include:

  • Volunteer service worth an estimated $3.2 billion
  • 97.8% of residents regularly talk or spend time with friends and family
  • 70.4% of residents do favors for neighbors
  • 39.6% of residents do something positive for the neighborhood
  • 42% of residents participate in local groups or organizations
  • 66.9% of residents donate $25 or more to charity

Find out more about volunteer opportunities:

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