Volunteerism is falling in the US, even in happy-to-help Utah
CASA of Lexington has tried just about everything to find volunteers to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children with the Kentucky nonprofit.
Since 2020, it has hired someone to focus on recruiting volunteers, added in-person and virtual outreach events and options to complete the required 30-hour training, and printed information on fans to hand out in churches, Melynda Milburn Jamison, its executive director, said. She even visited a men’s-only barbecue to make a quick 10-minute pitch.
The result? In 2022, CASA of Lexington had 62 new volunteers complete training, short of its target of 80. Only two came from the group's recruitment events, with the rest mostly via word of mouth, Jamison said.
“We’ve been able to retain keeping the number of children we serve fairly consistent," she said, “but we should have been increasing, because we’ve taken on new counties and we’ve added additional staff.”
Jamison is not alone in her frustration. Her experience reflects the latest twist in a decades-long trend of declining volunteer participation. As pandemic-related government aid programs end and inflation rises, nonprofits of all kinds are looking everywhere and trying everything to get volunteers. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps survey, formal volunteer participation was 23.2%, dropping 7% between 2019 and 2021 — the largest decrease the survey has recorded since a version of it started in 2002.
It's reached the point where the lack of volunteers strains the safety net that nonprofits provide to many of society's most vulnerable.
“This is a wake-up call for the social sector, which depends on volunteers, especially as needs for services remain high,” said Michael D. Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps, which has opened its yearly grant program to award $8 million to help nonprofits recruit and retain volunteers.
The largest drop between 2019 and 2021 in any state was Colorado at 16.1%. Hawaii, Wisconsin and Ohio also saw double-digit drops. Utah, with its highest-in-the-nation participation rate of 40.7% in 2021, the most recent figures that are available, saw an 8.8% drop.
The Utah Commission on Service and Volunteerism said it is seeing a decrease in what's called informal volunteering.
"Utah ranks number seven in the nation in informal volunteering, and that is where an individual would see a need in the community and directly fill it themselves or self organize as a neighborhood body and fill that need," said the commission’s associate director Mike Moon.
In 2021, over 999,000 Utahns volunteered through organizations, contributing an estimated $2.7 billion in economic value to the state. In addition, more than 1.4 million Utahns informally helped neighbors during the height of the pandemic.
Researchers, nonprofit professionals and volunteers offer a variety of explanations for the decline, including economic woes and the COVID-19 pandemic, as closures and fears about getting sick led some people to break their volunteering habit. Some did not return, instead putting their attention on their families or, as local United Ways report, their own needs for help with food, rent, utilities and health care.
Moon said while the pandemic did play a role in the decline of volunteers, he doesn't see COVID as the main catalyst.
"We see lots of causes for people disengaging from large community efforts. Certainly the pandemic led to that, the introduction of digital, social connection and ways in which someone can artificially fill a need for connection without physically connecting with other human beings."
Utah County’s Meals on Wheels program depends heavily on volunteers to deliver meals to the senior community. Stephanie Benson is the communications coordinator at Mountainland Association of Government Aging and Family Services, which runs the program. She said they deliver 450 meals a day in Utah County, so the need for the volunteers is vital.
Benson said the pandemic presented tricky challenges.
"It was twofold. We had a huge need because there were a lot of senior volunteers who were at high risk. So they were uncomfortable going out, those who just weren't able to volunteer any more. But then on the flip side, we had a lot of people who could and wanted to give back."
Currently, COVID doesn't present as big of an obstacle in ensuring meals get delivered. Instead, another challenge that Benson cited usually happens each spring with younger volunteers as semesters wind down at Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University.
"They're all going to internships or back home or jobs during the summer. So that does create a pretty big need for us."
Right now, Benson said they have about 450 volunteers, which is enough to get the job done. But with turnover and a growing senior population, she said there is always going to be a need.
"I think our biggest thing is that we have to continue to grow with our volunteer force, and that's where it gets tricky, especially because our area is just continuing to grow."
Currently, about one in 10 Utahns is 65 or older. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute projects that by 2065, that number will be one in five.
Historically, volunteering has been strongest among college graduates, married people and people with children. However, many Millennials and Gen Zers are delaying those traditional markers of adulthood, and even their peers who do reach these milestones are volunteering at lower rates, researchers at the University of Maryland found in a 2019 report.
“Younger generations today are much more likely to work several jobs, more likely to have to share places to live long past the college roommate stage of life,” said Mark Snyder, director of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota. “These are barriers to getting involved. They are not all blessed to have the discretionary time to go out and volunteer.”
The only state that saw an increase in formal volunteer participation from 2019 to 2021 was Wyoming. Rachel Bailey, executive director of the Food Bank of Wyoming, said many residents wanted to help when the pandemic hit and were willing to participate despite potential health risks.
The demand for food assistance also spiked, with her organization increasing the number of mobile food pantries from four to 19. Almost all of the new pantries are staffed by volunteers, some of whom are also seeking food assistance.
Her organization has been able to expand its volunteer force in part because it dedicated a paid staff to managing them and increased its warehouse space, Bailey said.
"We had some other team members that joined us that really have been looking at our volunteer program and understanding how important it is to the organization and how important it is for us to have the ability to distribute the amount of food that we do across the state," she said.
Mike Moon said Utah is working to address the shortage of volunteers and the service needs in Utah, especially in rural areas.
"We hear from nonprofits in particular in rural areas of Utah, that volunteerism is an issue.
They have a certain population size and they're not able to recruit from other areas," said Moon.
Another approach could be to encourage more families to volunteer together.
"I'm really excited to see it, because we know research indicates that the earlier someone volunteers and engages with service, the much more likely they are to continue to volunteer the rest of their lives," he said.
Ultimately, Moon believes more needs to be done to educate Utahns that volunteering is more than donating a couple of hours of their time. "It is a way of living that sets a new mindset.
It’s new lenses through which you see the world to identify a need and fill it. And that's what volunteering is. It's a way of life."