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Volunteerism: Finding the Perfect Match, and Then What?

It seems like the perfect match: nonprofit organizations need to accomplish their goals with less money and less staff, while unemployed professionals need to keep their skills fresh and their minds alert. Surely these two groups can help each other out. But, creating a mutually beneficial match isn’t as easy for organizations and individuals as it might seem. Sometimes it happens: Take, for example, Global Washington’s ability to corral a team of volunteers and interns to build and develop everything from blogs (this one included) to events to policy reports. But often, organizations struggle with how to handle the volunteer sector.

A couple of statistics, from the Volunteering in America Fact Sheet for 2009, get the mind spinning. (It’s a bit out of date, but socioeconomic trends haven’t changed that much, right?) One survey shows that the higher the education level and the more “robust the nonprofit infrastructure”, the higher the volunteering rates. But, contrary to all logic, higher unemployment rates lead to lower volunteering rates. Can we assume then that well-educated individuals volunteer less once they’re laid off?

Washington State, and Seattle in particular, have some more comforting statistics. Our state ranks 10th among the 50 states and DC in volunteers. Factors accounting for this are our above average level of education (30.7% state vs. 27.7% national with college degrees) and a slightly higher than average number of nonprofits (4.75 per 1,000 residents state vs. 4.45 per 1,000 residents national). But, despite rising unemployment, Washington State actually increased in volunteer hours in 2009, defying the national trend. Kudos to all, Seattle ranks 4th out of 51 large cities for the volunteer rate from 2007 to 2009. (Portland beat us though, coming in 2nd.)

Washington beats out the rest of the US with 20.6% providing professional and management services, versus the national average of 16.7%, with most of the work happening at religious institutions and at schools. The other top jobs in volunteerism are general labor (26.5%) and, no surprise, fundraising (25.2%).

Worth noting from these surveys is the retention rates of volunteers. In other words, once you get people to work for free, how do you keep them? Retention rates increased for volunteers providing activities that they do professionally, namely in management (69.5% to 82.3%) and administration (61.2% to 75.6%). On the other hand, fundraising is one of the few areas where retention rates decreased, from 63.4% to 61.4%.

Why? According to a study conducted for the article, “The New Volunteer Workforce” (Stanford Social Innovation Review, winter 2009), volunteers leave because the organization fails to do the following: match skills to assignments, recognize volunteer’s contributions, measure the value of volunteers, train volunteers (and train staff to train volunteers), and provide strong leadership.  Many studies, including those mentioned above, encourage nonprofit organizations to rethink how they manage volunteers. Considering that the value of one hour of volunteer time in Washington state is $21.62, according to the Independent Sector website, successful volunteer management makes financial sense.

How do organizations and individuals find one another? Online resource centers provide both parties a quick and easy way to detail skills, time frames, and expectations in such a way that both parties can make better choices. Global Washington’s Careers in Global Development site is a great resource for finding volunteer opportunities with member organizations, and for Global Washington members to find like-minded volunteers. With proper management and with volunteers able to treat their volunteer ‘gig’ with professionalism, it is possible to make a near perfect match.

Learn more about best practices in volunteer management and how to attract the skill set your organization wants at Global Washington’s workshop, Harnessing Volunteer Power, on August 23rd.