The Mysterious Case of the Missing Volunteers

A white paper from Porter Novelli notes that many more people say they’re interested in doing community service than actually do it.  The paper doesn’t attempt to determine the source of this so-called “Service Gap,” but merely documents its existence.  Here are a few of the Nonprofiteer’s speculations:

  • Money talks and bullshit walks.  Of course people say they’re interested in doing community service; it’s what they know they’re supposed to feel.  Many of them–many of us–would really rather not.  The number of people willing and able to handle the challenges of working with people with disabilities, or of abused children, or of going overseas to confront grinding poverty, is always going to be a minute fraction of the number who think somebody ought to do something about those things.
  • Nothing must be permitted to interfere with the all-important family. American culture has invested years in painting women who work outside the home as neglectful mothers, notwithstanding the fact that mothers today spend a substantially greater amount of time with their children than did their own mothers 4o years ago.  So naturally women are hesitant to spend time away from their children doing things in and for their communities–and naturally they’re determined to get a similar home-and-hearth commitment from their partners.  When we stop thinking that “my l’il family” is more important than “my community,” we’ll have more service to the community.
  • Lots of agencies aren’t equipped to use volunteers.  This is a problem we can actually address from within the nonprofit sector, at least with some financial help.  Everyone who’s ever tried it seriously knows that managing a volunteer corps is a full-time job, and that agencies can’t get the benefit of volunteer labor unless and until they devote paid labor to designing and implementing it.  Maybe the next round of Federal stimulus–and there will be a next round, as soon as Al Franken’s seated in the Senate and the Democrats stop trying to placate the unplacatable Republicans–could include funding for a volunteer coordinator at every nonprofit agency able to describe a concrete use for volunteers.  People will volunteer at places that value and use their time; they’ll walk away from places that waste it.

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5 Responses to “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Volunteers”

  1. Sandra Sims Says:

    You’re right on with your first point. People often say they’d like to do something but when reality hit they don’t. Hypothetical questions don’t encourage reality based responses.

    On the second point, for many people the family is, and should be the highest priority. But that doesn’t mean that little Sally or Johnny has to be on every sports team, do karate, and ballet, leaving the folks to play taxi driver all day. No one can do everything or be everywhere. We all need personal time, social time and life balance. Community service can play a part in fulfilling some of these needs.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      And Sally and Johnny can learn to pack lunches at the local food bank, just as Sasha and Malia did.

  2. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Two points I was curious about and didn’t see addressed in the PDF you linked:
    1. Have volunteer hours per capita declined in recent years? I would guess they have, because of the women/mothers issue you raise, but maybe not.
    2. Has it been demonstrated that the whole volunteer thingie makes economic sense? Given that nonprofits have to pay supervisors, as you mention, and that volunteer help is so unruly, I wonder whether we should just abandon the ideology that praises volunteering and instead encourage generous people to write checks.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone documents a decline in volunteerism from the 70s to the 90s, though he doesn’t connect it directly to the family-time issue. Rather, he focuses on the increased number of women in the full-time workforce and their concomitant decrease in the volunteer workforce.

      As for the cost-effectiveness of volunteerism, I’m not aware of any studies that ask the question just that way–which is remarkable in and of itself! Volunteering is such a time-honored way of producing generous checks (volunteers give more money than non-volunteers) that no one really seems to know what would happen if we just told people to stay home and write more checks. But to the extent that the purpose of volunteerism is not to provide free labor for charities but to train citizens, its economic value isn’t really the point.

  3. Adam Burns Says:

    The valid points posted here represent some of the primary motivations behind releasing the Service Gap data. These Styles data are not intended to uncover the whys behind the Gap, but rather to ignite a conversation that can help us to meet the challenge of reducing the Gap head-on. What makes this challenge particularly interesting is the backdrop of our current President’s commitment to service and the record-breaking participation in the MLK Day of Service in January. The Gap exists, yet the numbers of volunteers on MLK Day illustrate an undercurrent of energy and enthusiasm that if tapped into, could help us bridge it.

    I agree that there are numerous examples where individuals’ interests don’t match available volunteer opportunities. But, the Styles data also reveal that there are some opportunities where more than one-in-ten adults indicate that they have donated their time in the past 12 months. These are not huge figures, but at the same time, they are not inconsequential. As my econ 101 prof would say, “We have a supply chain problem.” We need to paint a clearer picture of what and where opportunities exist so that we can reach those who have the proclivity and the desire to volunteer.

    The idea of “customizing” service opportunities to the individual, from both logistical and motivational perspectives, is an important progression. It is certainly easier said than done, but I feel that updating clearinghouses, volunteer opportunity Web sites, etc. with this notion in mind could make volunteering easier and more personally-relevant. Perhaps, it could help us to close the Gap during a time when we desperately need to do so.

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