Volunteering In America 2009: Volunteers and Nonprofits Collaborate to Weather the Storm


Amid all the gloom that has helped to define the nonprofit industry in the U.S. since the recession began, one particularly harrowing story stood out.

In November of 2008, as it became clear that the economy was headed over a cliff, an expert on public service predicted that at least 100,000 nonprofits would fail during the current downturn. The culprit, said NYU Professor Paul Light, would be reduced funding from donors and charitable foundations.

But as an innovative collaboration between VolunteerMatch and the Corporation for National and Community Service is illustrating, individuals and organizations in the U.S. are collaborating much more proactively than they have in previous recessions. The result is that not only are more people volunteering, but they’re volunteering in new and creative ways. And, most important, by working together with volunteers, many organizations have been able to maintain their service levels during a time of growing need.

The State of Volunteering

The Corporation for National and Community Service is the federal agency in charge of promoting civic engagement through service and volunteering. In order to educate and inform the public and help organizations make better use of volunteers, the agency releases data and analysis about annual U.S. volunteering trends at VolunteeringInAmerica.gov.

Despite expectations that the recession would dampen public service, the U.S. volunteer rate actually stayed relatively stable from 26.2% in 2007 to 26.4% in 2008, representing a million more volunteers. Young adults, in particular, are helping out in greater numbers — from 7.8 million young adult volunteers in 2007 to 8.2 million in 2008.

Typically periods of high unemployment and foreclosure rates have seen lower volunteer rates, so this is being seen as a significant countertrend.

Partnering to Inspire Volunteers

But the most popular part of the annual report is its annual rankings of volunteer rates in cities and states, and this marks the second year that VolunteerMatch has teamed up with the Corporation to put the numbers in front of volunteers at www.volunteermatch.org.

As the largest directory of active volunteer opportunities, VolunteerMatch is a living, breathing eco-system of nonprofit needs posted as volunteer opportunities. Through the partnership, VolunteerMatch users who are searching for opportunities in San Francisco (we have more than 1.400) can see that their city now ranks #15 nationally against all other large metro areas. The rankings are shown in a widget that users can click through to learn at www.VolunteeringInAmerica.gov.

Together the rankings and the listings are giving Web surfers a real-time snap shot of how well communities are responding to actual nonprofits needs.

More Nonprofits Are Asking for Help

A big factor in the resurgence of volunteering during the recession is that more nonprofits than ever are asking for help from regular Americans – and that’s important because studies show that the right “ask” is key to inspiring people to want to get involved.

Since the recession began in late 2007, more than 10,000 nonprofit organizations have joined VolunteerMatch to recruit and manage their volunteers – a rate of 200 to 300 per week. And each volunteer opportunity they have posted is a chance for an engaged member of the community to make an impact and do meaningful work for the good of us all.

Thus far, this combination of more nonprofits asking for help and more people stepping in to help has been a sustaining factor in the health of the sector. Nine months after he made his prediction, the verdict is still out on Light’s estimate. But if it turns out to be just a bad dream, we may all have volunteering to thank for it.