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The Risk of Volunteerism Shortfalls: Are You Prepared?

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The non-profit sector is often viewed as embracing a ‘have not’ mentality, going cap-in-hand to donors with a charitable mindset. But as Dan Pallotta so eloquently pointed out is in his TED talkthis approach is broken. Continuing changes to government, society, and civic participation are all creating significant challenges for the sector at every level.

This Points of View was inspired by a Canadian article that highlights the approaching funding shortfalls that have resulted from an escalating reliance on the services that non-profits offer. The author remarks that as a result of rising demands on their services and slow economic growth, in Canada “… the sector’s revenue streams are not likely to keep up with demand.” Moreover, as a result of rising demands on their services and slow economic growth, Canada's … charities and nonprofits will need roughly double what they raise today to meet spiralling demand for their services. We call this the emerging “social deficit” and, if systemic action is not taken, it will manifest itself in an ever-increasing litany of unmet needs. The cost of inaction to taxpayers will be high when you factor in the enormous financial pressure governments will face within a decade to maintain social services Canadians want and have come to rely upon.”

The author is, of course, talking about raising money. It seems to always boil down to money, doesn’t it? We have experienced a decade-plus of these money revelations – including two of our recent favourites from Susan J. Ellis, The Limitations of Seeing Volunteers Only as Unpaid Staff and It’s Time to Discuss the Complex Relationship of Volunteering and Money – but there remains much more focus and concern on shortfalls of money. And one of the defining features of the sector – namely, the involvement of volunteers in delivering our mission – has long been flagged as an unstable resource.

Stretching as far back as 2007, Linda Graff and Paul Reed from Canada highlighted the extremely precarious position volunteering was in – a concern that has only grown. As Graff wrote:

 
“Volunteering has always been here for us and the tendency is to assume that it always will be here for us. But if you stop to look at that assumption for just a moment, the fragility of volunteering and the volunteer work force becomes terribly clear. This is something Paul (Reed) and I talk about in the Canada Who Cares? initiative. Despite the fact that volunteers are virtually everywhere, the base, the foundation, of volunteerism is more narrow than most of us realize. To illustrate, 67% of all volunteer work is done by about 5% of the adult Canadian population. We think volunteering is solid, but in fact, it rests on the shoulders of just a very few “stalwarts,” as Paul calls them. And they are not only aging. Most of them are aged. We can expect that they will be moving out of volunteering in quite large numbers over the next few years. That narrow base is getting narrower. That’s why it’s becoming ever so much more important to study, research, understand, attend to volunteering. We’ve been taking it for granted. Continuing to do so has the potential to create quite serious consequences.”

More recently, two separate studies in the UK (Charities Aid Foundation and Third Sector Research Centre) have continued to prove the case made above and also show that this instability is not unique to the Canadian context. These articles show that a significant proportion of the time given by volunteers is donated by less than 10 percent of the population. Like Paul Reed’s ‘stalwarts’ referenced above, the top 10 percent group is referred to as the civic core and, unsurprisingly, it contains a significant number of those wonderful pre-baby boomer generation volunteers.

You know the type. Pre-boomers are often the Volunteer Managers’ dream volunteers and exactly the prototype nonprofits have built their foundation on over the past several decades. They are also the type of people with the level of involvement that nonprofits presume will always be around. Pre-boomers are the people who will give a long-term, regular time commitment to organisations over many years. They will turn out in all weathers (whether you want them there or not!) and can always been relied upon.

But the pre-boomer generation is aging out. Increasing numbers are becoming less capable of doing the volunteering they once did due to their age and associated declining health. If we had to be blunt, within the next few years this generation will have passed away or be requiring support rather than in a position to give it. Relying upon them as volunteers is not a sustainable strategy for the future, nor is presuming we can replace them on a 1:1 ratio with other generations of volunteers, because their patterns of involvement are starkly different.

Just think about the challenge that presents. In an age of micro-volunteering and short-term commitments, how are we going to fill the gaping hole in donated time when those who give half the volunteer hours in society can no longer do so? And that’s assuming the amount of time volunteers give now is sufficient to meet the growing needs of society in the future, a highly unrealistic expectation.

The Problem

The problem is that many Volunteer Managers and organisations don’t realise this IS a problem. We’ve identified three explanations to help explain why. Consider:

Firstly, there just isn’t the data when it comes to volunteering. That doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, just that nobody has analysed it. Perhaps we need to go beyond surveys that tell us how many people volunteer and how many hours they give, conducting some deeper analysis to see if there are any underlying trends that signify future problems of volunteer supply and demand?

Secondly, most Volunteer Involving Organisations don’t take volunteering seriously enough as a strategic concern to prioritise such data analysis. Or, if it is available, to consider its implications at a high enough level. Board and senior management focus on fundraising, income generation, and paid staff concerns well before any thought is given to volunteering. Volunteers remain a nice-to-have, not an essential element of the organisation’s work. The danger is clear: volunteer involving organisations could be sleepwalking off a cliff, unable to see or predict the disastrous impact of the supply of volunteer time drying up as demand for volunteer time spikes.

Thirdly, we’re looking at a secondary but no less significant shift that is also being ignored – the rise of the disruption culture. A growing number of people are cutting out the ‘middle man,’ namely charities and non-profits, and looking to save the world themselves by connecting with populations directly. Formal volunteering, where the majority of the profession works, is dependent upon people reaching out to our organizations for both support as clients as well as volunteers offering time and talents. What does the future hold for the profession if one or both of those groups diverts?

It’s fair to say that right now, the Volunteer Engagement profession isn’t talking about or strategizing – broadly or specifically – about the decline of the very resource that is the foundation of our profession.

Are You Prepared?

So, what does this mean for you? Are you prepared? Here are five steps forward each of us can take:

  1. Get smarter with your data
    As mentioned above, take a look at the data you collect on volunteer involvement in your setting. Does it tell you anything useful? Does it tell you what you need to know? Does it help you plan for the future? What’s missing? What would be great to know that you don’t already know?

    If the answers to those questions make you see information you need to collect, start collecting it. Don’t wait for permission. Do it. If you’re not sure how or what the best way is, engage a volunteer to help you, maybe a research student looking for some experience. Even better, let’s work together as a profession to better understand what the real levels of involvement look like. It may be we’re all relying on the same 10 people!

  1. Make your voice heard
    Armed with your data and insights into how volunteer engagement needs to adapt to meet the needs of the future, seize any chance you can to educate others. Look for what Susan J. Ellis calls teachable moments, look for opportunities to make colleagues, board members, volunteers, senior managers, funders, policy makers, community members etc. aware of the challenges and opportunities you and your organisation will face.
     
  2. Think about the volunteer journey
    Some will say that the days of long-term, regular volunteering are dying (if not already dead). We don’t agree. It is still possible to get volunteers to make a regular commitment, possibly even over a long term. You’re just not going to do it on day one anymore. Instead, you’ll need to build a volunteer journey: take that initial spark of micro-volunteering interest, nurture it, fan the flames of that volunteer’s passion and enthusiasm for your cause, and work to deepen that commitment over time. It may take weeks, months, to even years, but some volunteers will go on this journey and eventually make a bigger volunteer commitment, big enough to fill the roles you might struggle to fill with new recruits in future. And if you can integrate this volunteer journey with that of other supporters, so much the better – allowing those who engage with your organisation as time or money donors to move freely and flexibly between how they want to support you, building loyalty and commitment as they go.
     
  3. Redesign roles to meet the current reality
    As VEPs, we should all be redesigning volunteer roles / involvement to respond to the changing styles of involvement; i.e., you may be counting “Martha” as one volunteer, but if “Martha” leaves and is one of your core volunteers, you may find you actually need to replace “Martha” with 5 to 10 people to make up for the volume of work she does.

    Beyond volume, look at the design of the roles themselves. Ask yourself simple questions about the roles you develop on issues. Consider: How much direct impact and line of sight is built in? How much flexibility is built in? What can you offer and how closely aligned to your mission is the role?
     

  4. Get loud, get organized, and advocate!
    Strong professions have strong professional bodies. Coincidence? We think not. It’s a perennial concern that our professional associations go through cycles of feast and famine, trending more on the famine side, with both people unwilling to step up and take on leadership roles and a lack of funding to provide stability and investment to make things happen.

    International Volunteer Managers Day is coming up (November 5th!) and this year’s theme is, appropriately, “Time For Change.” Perhaps addressing this issue is the most important change we can collectively make right now – one that will ensure there is a profession in the future.

Comments

Thank you, Lorraine for the lovely comment. Although leaders of volunteers are facing big challenges, Rob and I believe the profession is up to the task!

Am somewhat amazed that an article with 'risk and shortfall' in the title could in fact feel inspiring. Perhaps it is the name it, understand it, and address it attitude of the authors that is not only refreshing but also encouraging. As someone who is on, as well as responsible for designing the volunteer journey of others, I am grateful to have access to caring and competent guidance. Thank you for this article.