How Nonprofits Can Turn 25% into 62%

boy holding butterfly in his hand
Getty Images by Dina Marie

If you haven’t spent time exploring the latest “Volunteering and Civic Life in America” report, released by the Corporation for National and Community Service and National Conference on Citizenship, you should – it’s pretty fun.

You can see statistics about volunteering rates in 2013 based on geography, demographics, and even cause area. How does your state or city rank vs. some of the most active volunteering areas in the country? How is the new “Generation Z” starting to emerge when it comes to volunteering? There are even pretty graphs and charts to help ease your way through all that data.

Some of the statistics might not seem so fun, though. For example, it’s great that 62.6 million Americans reported volunteering in 2013, but when you do the math…that’s only about 25%. Not necessarily encouraging for us as nonprofits, who always seem to be looking for more folks to help out, right?

VolunteerMatch president Greg Baldwin recently took a deep dive into this stat, so we won’t spend a ton of time worrying about it. Instead, let’s take a look at another one: more than 138 million Americans engaged in what the report calls “informal volunteering” in 2013.

Huh? What is this…informal volunteering? The report explains that it includes helping neighbors with such tasks as watching each other’s children, helping with shopping, or house sitting. Basically, these folks spent at least a bit of time, every once in a while, doing something for someone else.

Well, we can work with that!

You see, this number is proof, for those nay-sayers who might be wringing their hands and lamenting the low volunteering rate, that people WANT to help out. They help each other all the time! So why aren’t they turning those altruistic urges into volunteer time for your nonprofit?

What we’ve realized at VolunteerMatch, from our many, many years working in the volunteering field, is that the limiting factor in the volunteer rate is NOT the amount of people willing to help out. It’s the ability of nonprofits to engage those folks effectively. (That’s why, in the rippling wake of this past recession, we’re now seeing a drop in volunteer rate. Nonprofits are feeling the squeeze, and it has impacted their ability to build strong volunteer programs.)

If you’re frustrated by an inability to engage volunteers as efficiently (and as often) as you wish, start with these two important steps:

1. Ask them. A lot of them.

People are busy, and the world is a noisy place these days. You have to cast your net pretty wide and shout pretty loudly to be noticed. Websites like VolunteerMatch can help you reach many more potential volunteers with your opportunities, so go ahead and spend 5 minutes posting a listing right now.

2. Learn what to do with them.

Chances are, you didn’t go to school for volunteer management – and that’s just fine! There are a number of great resources to help you learn on the job, so your program can be stronger at attracting, managing and keeping great volunteers. Check out the free webinars in the VolunteerMatch Learning Center.

Don’t be discouraged by some of the data you’re seeing about volunteering. Instead, be inspired! And know that whatever the numbers say, you can count on VolunteerMatch to be there to help you engage the volunteers you really need for your nonprofit.

How does your organization encourage your community members to move from “informal” to “formal” volunteering?

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