Volunteering Support And Supporting Volunteers
If time is money then volunteerism is a multibillion-dollar industry. Each year more than 60 million people volunteer in the U.S., and the value of a volunteer’s time has risen to more than $28 per hour. As an advocate who has worked for several nonprofits of varying sizes over the years, I know firsthand that our sector is fueled by volunteers. Our work truly wouldn’t be possible without their support.
This is both good and bad. It’s uplifting and inspiring to know that millions of people are generously donating their time to important causes around the world. On the other hand, relying on free labor and unpaid internships can be problematic. In an industry as important as the nonprofit sector, we must do whatever we can to attract, support, and retain the volunteers who help make our work possible.
But first, why do people volunteer anyway?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I first became a part of the nonprofit world around the age of 13, when I signed up for Community Service as an elective course at school and collected canned goods for the local food bank. In high school I volunteered for my hometown’s library, and for 18 months my family raised a puppy for an organization that trained service dogs for the blind. I’ve been involved with a handful of amazing organizations since, and these days I give my time to HandsOn San Diego, which promotes community volunteerism.
But even though volunteering has been a key part of my own life, I still go back to the data. What do we know about volunteers, about why they lend a hand, and why they ultimately stop giving their time to a cause? And importantly, what can organizations do to create a healthy volunteer program and environment?
What Drives Volunteerism
In their 2021 report Nonprofit Supporter Perspectives, research group Op4G surveyed over 700 nonprofit supporters to better understand their volunteering efforts. Of those surveyed, 281 indicated that they support animal/wildlife organizations. Below are the top five reasons why these volunteers support nonprofits (selected from a list of nine):
|What are the top 5 reasons why you support nonprofits?||Total||Animal Lovers|
|I like knowing that I am helping others||512||205|
|I have a personal connection to the cause/mission||336||143|
|I trust the organization||318||128|
|The nonprofit is local/helps to support my local community||309||101|
|I feel that it’s my moral obligation to support a nonprofit||282||95|
For advocates, the above gives us clues on how we can support and encourage the volunteers we work with: by making sure to communicate how they are making a difference, by forging connections with those who relate to our work, by building relationships with and among volunteers, and by fostering trust within your organization.
In Faunalytics’ study on the state of animal advocacy, we surveyed more than 160 advocates across the U.S. and Canada. Most volunteers were educated white women without children, over the age of 35. While this profile certainly doesn’t come as a surprise, it is something that demands our attention. Of the unpaid advocates in our sample, 28% experienced discrimination or harassment in the past five years, and advocates who are members of marginalized groups were disproportionately impacted. Volunteer leaders can learn more about this issue by checking out Aph Ko’s 3 Reasons Black Folks Don’t Join the Animal Rights Movement – And Why We Should, and take action with VolunteerMatch’s 8 Strategies for Creating a More Inclusive Volunteer Program.
Nature vs Nurture
One examination of the relationship between personality traits and nonprofit volunteerism suggests that empathy and extraversion are highly correlated with volunteerism. If this is the case, we may be leaving out a considerable population of shy and introverted folks who could become productive volunteers. Given that about 41% of volunteers became involved with their main organization after being asked by the organization to volunteer, groups should consider different volunteer recruitment strategies to get to those who may need a little encouragement before signing up to help out.
Time & Money
The average volunteer gave over 65 hours per year to nonprofits, although many have cut back their hours due to COVID (either by choice or due to a decrease in in-person opportunities). However, nearly three-quarters do expect to return to their pre-pandemic volunteering routines. In addition to giving their time, many donate directly, attend fundraising events, or contribute supplies and other in-kind goods. While volunteer income varies, our survey of animal advocates found that nearly half of volunteers report a household income of $100,000 or more. This is important to remember during the giving season, given that 85% of volunteers donate to the nonprofits that they volunteer for.
Fostering a Movement
It’s clear that volunteers are a huge asset, and it’s vital that organizations do everything in our power to keep them involved with our work. In The New Volunteer Workforce, the Stanford Social Innovation Review outlines the main reasons why volunteers walk away, and last year Faunalytics investigated advocates’ experiences in order to pinpoint how to retain advocates in the movement.
The research suggests that in order to retain volunteers, we need to:
- Demonstrate strong leadership
- Facilitate connection with others
- Create a safe working environment
- Provide adequate training and recognition
- Offer support for career advancement
For advocates managing volunteers, this means providing strong volunteer onboarding, engagement, and recognition, and supporting career growth as much as possible.
In addition to the above, organizations shouldn’t forget about volunteer “voice.” One analysis of 651 animal shelter volunteers found that the role of volunteer input in the policies and practices of organizations—or voice—had a big impact on satisfaction with the volunteer experience. For advocates, this means creating opportunities for volunteers to have a say in the work they’re contributing to.
Resources For Nonprofits
If you’re wondering where to start or if you’re building out your current volunteer program, Best Friends Animal Society has put together a great Volunteer Guide for nonprofits. This covers everything from recruitment and orientation to training and supervision. You can also get started by checking out this Volunteer Handbook how-to guide from The Balance Small Business. Your handbook should clearly define how volunteers help carry out your mission, and can be used to inform and support volunteers as they get behind your cause.
Resources For Volunteers
Volunteering is a wonderful way to give back to the community and causes you care about. You can find volunteer opportunities by searching the databases at Animal Advocacy Careers, Idealist, or the Points of Light network. For those with a passion for animals and data, Faunalytics’ list of current volunteer openings is available here.
Volunteers are the heart of Faunalytics. Our team of dedicated researchers, writers, and advocates truly help make our programs possible. Beyond extending our sincerest gratitude, we’re working to make the volunteer experience even better next year; for example, with a paid fellowship or ambassador program (keep informed via our newsletter updates).
As you think about where to volunteer those precious hours you might have to spare, I’ll leave you with this thought: According to a Gallup survey, the people who were measured to have the highest levels of wellbeing were more likely to volunteer time. Admittedly, the direction of the relationship is unknown—does scoring high on the wellbeing scale make one more likely to volunteer or does volunteering improve one’s wellbeing? Either way, it seems like a win-win.