Today’s volunteers are a tremendous resource for both donor- and member-focused nonprofits. Absent volunteers, many organizations would unable to deliver programs, raise funds or serve clients. Yet despite their importance, many organizations fail to understand the true value of a volunteer.
A recent survey of nonprofit professionals suggests 45 percent of organizations don’t measure the impact of volunteers with 34 percent attributing the failure to a lack of resources and tools, 29 percent reporting a lack of skills or knowledge prevented measurement and 25 percent citing a lack of time. Many organizations looking to understand their impact and value focus instead almost exclusively on the dollars and cents coming into their organization. But, why?
If the contributions of those giving their time, talent and effort to a need or cause are (truly) mission-critical for an organization, then why isn’t the value of a volunteer treated with the same diligence and care given to donations, event performance, membership dues and other assets necessary to a nonprofit’s success?
Whereas the volunteers of yesteryear may have chosen service to a nonprofit in lieu of professional work, today’s volunteers are more apt to do so as an alternative to other leisure activities or hobbies. Nonprofits must understand, document, articulate and recognize their value, cultivating relationships with each individual and engaging volunteers as respected partners in their organization’s mission – not as unpaid employees.
A survey released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016, the most recent year available, shows that approximately one-quarter of Americans take the time to volunteer. And, at the highest level, survey data from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) suggests volunteers tend to be married Caucasian women. The largest age group for volunteers was 35-44, the CNCS survey said, and volunteers were most likely to be parents with children under 18. The survey also volunteers tend to be highly educated, with the gap between those a bachelor’s degree or higher and those with only a high school diploma of more than 23 percentage points.
Most volunteers report working with either one or two organizations for a median of 52 volunteer hours per year.
Different Generations Provide Different Value
Considering the generational differences sociologists have studied, for everything from purchase behavior to entertainment and food preferences, it’s not surprising to see those differences extend to volunteerism as well. While CNCS survey data suggests those aged 35-44 were most likely to serve (28.9), unique attributes and stage-of-life milestones present unique opportunities for nonprofits looking to better understand and engage their volunteers.
When it comes to prospective volunteers, Baby Boomers, the generation of 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, represent a huge opportunity for nonprofits. Per U.S. Census data, the numbers of volunteers age 65 and older will swell to more than 13 million in 2020. What’s more, that number will continue to rise for many years to come, as the youngest Baby Boomers will not reach age 65 until 2029. Volunteering also offers significant health benefits for these Baby Boomers navigating the complex transition from full-time career and family building to retirement. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP):
- Almost two-thirds of Senior Corps volunteers reported a decrease in feelings of isolation, and 67 percent of those who first reported they “often” lack companionship stated that they had improved social connections.
- Seventy percent of volunteers who initially reported five or more symptoms of depression reported fewer symptoms at the end of the first year.
- Sixty-three percent of volunteers who initially indicated three or four symptoms of depression reported fewer symptoms after one year.
In addition to the sheer opportunity presented by their generation’s size, Baby Boomer volunteers provide value through their experience, with a broad range of skills, talents and experience. Access to this maturity and competence will prove invaluable in solving and resourcing solutions for a wide range of social problems in the years ahead.
The Value of a Volunteer: Baby Boomers
To attract Boomers to volunteering, nonprofit groups should “re-imagine” roles for older American volunteers, making available opportunities that embrace their expertise and background. This approach is essential in driving value not only in the acquisition of Boomer volunteers but also in their retention.
Current data suggests three out of every ten Boomer volunteers choose not to volunteer in the following year. The CNCS reports volunteer retention rates are highest for Baby Boomers whose volunteer activities are professional and managerial, engaging in music or some other type of performance, tutoring, mentoring, and coaching (74.8 percent, 70.9 percent, and 70.3 percent respectively). Volunteer retention is lowest for volunteers who engage in general labor (55.6 percent).
The Value of a Volunteer: Millennials and Gen Z
What they lack in the experience shown by Boomers, younger volunteers make up for in enthusiasm. Even in the face of complex social issues including climate change, terrorism, and income inequality, polls, statistics, and anecdotal data suggest Millennials and Gen Z bring to volunteer opportunities a strong social conscience.
Millennials, born between 1981 and 1991, have transcended early labels as “Slacktivists” and now include both those on the cusp of middle age busy balancing work and family and younger adults early in their careers. With experience to contribute, Millennial volunteers can provide tremendous value as members of committees or advisory boards. Millennials with significant work experience can also provide support to nonprofits via pro bono skills and via Young Professional groups. In fact, 77 percent of Millennials are more likely to volunteer if they can use their skill set and if they see examples of the impact of their time or donations.
Meanwhile, born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z continues to come of age with the youngest in the cohort just 6 years old and the oldest 22. However, 67 percent of Gen Z report volunteering in the last 12 months and 26 percent of 16 to 19-year-olds report that they volunteer on a regular basis. Gen Z continues to be primarily interested in episodic volunteering with 70 percent contributing below 100 hours a year.
Realizing the Value of Younger Volunteers
Building relationships with young volunteers can build a strong foundation for lifelong support. Video offers a powerful recruitment tool, with the ability to show the impact of an organization’s cause and a young volunteer’s service. Showcase what’s been made possible with their support and share stories of people who benefit from their contribution. Organizations looking to attract Gen Z volunteers should articulate the value of a volunteer role as a means to gain valuable work and life experience.
The Value of a Volunteer
Welcoming the volunteers who are raising their hand to support your organization, recognizing and capitalizing on their unique attributes and ensuring they have meaningful opportunities to contribute are effective first steps but are only a piece of the puzzle. In order to ensure a high ROI on volunteer programs, an organization must also have a culture which acknowledges, cultivates and celebrates their contribution.
The soft benefits of volunteer involvement across a nonprofit are widely accepted, with industry averages suggesting volunteers are 66 percent more likely to donate financially to the organization they support than those who do not volunteer their time.
Yet formal documentation of the cost savings delivered through volunteer involvement remains a powerful tool in helping organizations understand, track and maximize volunteer programs. The most recent data from Independent Sector suggests the value of a volunteer hour grew to $24.69 in 2017, a 2.3-percent increase from 2016.
Built using the approximate hourly earnings of all production and nonsupervisory workers with an additional 12 percent to include a buffer for fringe benefits, the hourly average provides a benchmark helpful in articulating the value of a volunteer across a variety of roles within an organization. Nonprofits can get additional clarity by adjusting the figure to accommodate:
- Pro-bono services from professionals including lawyers, doctors, technologists and others whose wages may reflect an hourly rate higher than the national average
- Wage rates specific to a particular geography, especially urban areas
Quantifying the Impact of Volunteers
As noted above, per ASAE’s Achieving Mutually Beneficial Volunteer Relationships report, associations report that an average of 30 percent of their members are serving or have served in a volunteer role in the past while the other 70 percent have never volunteered. Improving volunteer participation can have a significant impact on an organization’s financial health, introducing cost-savings which can then be redirected to supporting other programs.
Additionally, many organizations have high participation in short-term, project-based volunteer opportunities but may benefit further from improving engagement and driving an increase in the number of hours volunteers are willing to commit to an organization. For many organizations, driving even modest growth from an existing volunteer base already familiar with, and passionate about, can yield significant results.
Based on the total U.S. contribution of 7.8 billion volunteer hours, the most recent CNCS data available, the 2017 value of volunteerism in the U.S. would have exceeded $192 billion. Understanding the monetary value of volunteers to your organization brings focus to the big picture.
What could those additional cost savings do for the nonprofit sector? More importantly, what would even a fraction of that savings mean for you?