The Denver Rescue Mission served more than 1.2 million meals to people who were homeless or financially struggling this year, far more than it had ever served. But it accomplished that monumental task with far fewer volunteers than it had just four years ago.
Like many nonprofits across the country that rely on volunteers, the organization is finding it harder to engage people who are willing to donate their time. Even as the need for help has increased, the number of Americans who formally volunteer has continued to decline, according to reports by the Census Bureau and organizations tracking volunteerism.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Denver nonprofit with nine locations relied on 16,000 volunteers annually, some who worked just once and others who were regulars, said Sarah Hood, director of volunteer services. This past year that number dropped nearly 13 percent, to 14,000.
But the pandemic alone isn’t responsible for the decreased number of volunteers in America that has left many nonprofits straining to provide services. There’s more afoot. The pandemic exacerbated shortages, but the decline in volunteering predates it, a slow but steady drop for the past 13 years. A number of factors are fueling the decline, researchers say, all playing havoc with the thousands of nonprofits that rely on the generosity - and labor - of others to fulfill their missions.
“There have always been organizations that have struggled to find volunteers, but it’s now it’s a huge problem,” said Nathan Dietz, research director at the Do Good Institute in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, who co-wrote a study released last month exploring factors influencing volunteering and charitable giving in the United States.
The number of volunteers in America dropped about 7 percent between September 2020 and 2021, according to a January report released by the Census Bureau and AmeriCorps, the federal agency for national service and volunteerism. In that year, about 60.7 million people, a little more than 23 percent of Americans, formally volunteered with an organization, the lowest percentage of volunteering since it was tracked beginning in the early 2000s, Dietz said.
At Neighborhood House of Milwaukee, a nonprofit community center that provides educational enrichment opportunities and a food pantry for low-income children and families, the number of annual volunteers has fallen by 150 to 200 from pre-pandemic totals, said Rebecca Gregory, the director of development. “If we’re short finding volunteers, it just means consumers have to wait longer, that our staff is more stressed, and it’s a less fun and nice environment for everyone involved, so they really are integral,” Gregory said.
And at Miriam’s Kitchen in D.C., just around the corner from the Watergate, the number of volunteers is still below what it was before the pandemic, even as demand has soared for the Monday through Friday breakfast and dinner offerings for unhoused and low-income people.
Martha Wolf, volunteer manager at Miriam’s Kitchen, said that the organization has had to change the way it contacts volunteers and that it is relying more on individuals than on corporate groups that used to make monthly commitments to bring in teams of volunteers.
“Before the pandemic, we had probably 30 or 40 different groups that were each making a monthly commitment,” she said. “And right now, I think we have three.”
The strain on organizations can be overwhelming. This year, Bread for the City, a longtime D.C. nonprofit that offers assistance to struggling families and individuals, closed its two free food pantries for three weeks to allow its employees and volunteers time to recharge and recover from overwork and the grief following the deaths of three staff members. Before the pandemic, Bread for the City was providing food for 250 families a day. Since the pandemic began, it has provided for 1,600 families a day.
Reduced numbers have affected everything including firefighting companies, animal shelters, mentoring programs and senior services. While some organizations have been able to claw back volunteers as the pandemic has waned and return to regular schedules and a full roster, many more are experiencing difficulty.
The reasons are different now. Many older volunteers who were more susceptible to the virus decided it was too risky to continue volunteering. Company policies that changed to allow employees to work from home made it harder to organize their participation in volunteer activities. Fewer people coming into cities to work meant reduced opportunities to help out at those nonprofits based in cities where much of the need is.
But there are also trends that precede changes brought on by the pandemic.
The Do Good Institute’s research has shown that a number of different factors affect whether people choose to volunteer. People with higher levels of education are more likely to volunteer, as are married couples and parents who have children living with them, according to the institute’s research. But younger people are waiting longer to marry and have children. And many college graduates are carrying a student loan burden that forces them to work more to pay those bills and leaves less time for volunteering. Dietz said the greatest decline in volunteering has been mostly concentrated in suburban and rural areas where volunteering rates had been the highest.
But one factor trumps all, Dietz said: “The most commonly cited reason why people volunteer, period, is because people ask them to volunteer.”
Whatever the reasons for the shortage, it is compounding issues especially for many front-line nonprofits addressing food insecurity and housing shortages. Costs skyrocketed because of inflation and in many places there is a growing demand for services. At Miriam’s Kitchen, for instance, feeding the homeless has become much more expensive. “We’ve doubled our meal services, so the price for serving them has doubled for us,” spokesman James Durrah said. “The overall budget in the kitchen has tripled, and we still don’t have the amount of kitchen staff we would like to have.”
With fewer volunteers able to pitch in, the organization is feeling the pinch of delivering to their clients.
“Not having enough people in the kitchen to prepare everything and get it ready for our guests puts a lot of strain on the chefs and the other volunteers,” Leia Schantz, a volunteer sous chef who works three days a week at Miriam’s Kitchen, said during a recent shift as she prepared garlic bread for a spaghetti dinner and gave directions to other volunteers who were slicing cucumbers and carrots for salads.
In recent months, the number of people showing up for meals has gone from about 125 to well over 200. On this bitter cold November evening, they were preparing dinner for 240 people.
“The guests are amazing and really grateful that we’re doing this,” Schantz said. “The work all has to get done even if there are fewer of us doing it.”
As the pandemic ebbed and life began returning to a semblance of normal, a lot of nonprofits ran into an unexpected problem: Many of the volunteers who had worked for them previously simply never came back. Some had moved. Others felt an increased strain in their own lives. And a certain number just felt they could no longer make it a priority.
The impact of the decline in volunteering goes beyond simply how food is prepared or clothing is delivered, say those working with people who are most in need. There are also vital interactions and connections that are no longer being made.
Volunteers “help our clients feel human,” said Donna-Marie Thompson, associate director of volunteer & in-kind donations at N Street Village, a women’s shelter in D.C. “When you volunteer here, you can see the difference that you’re making in someone’s life. Yes, we’re serving a meal, but even the ‘good afternoon’ or the ‘good morning’ that goes along with it, you can see the change in someone’s face and how you’re helping to brighten their day just by being in that space. . . . Just identifying them as a human being in that moment can do so much more than you can dream of.”
Thompson said N Street Village went from about 750 volunteers before the pandemic to about 400 to 500 now.
The shortage “is presenting itself in a bunch of different ways,” she said, “but when we just need those last minute hands, it’s not there the way that it used to be.”
Martha’s Table, one of the largest and most established of D.C.’s community-facing nonprofits, has seen a 20 percent decline in volunteers from its pre-pandemic numbers, according to Briana Cleveland, its director of volunteer engagement. It fills about 15,000 volunteer slots a year compared with about 18,000 slots before the pandemic. Cleveland calculated volunteers provide hours of service that would cost Martha’s Table more than $1,000,000 if it had to pay for their time.
“We are able are able to maximize our [return on investment] and our impact with our families given the time that individuals are giving to us, and we really truly value that,” Cleveland said. “We view volunteers as partners, not just as help.”
The drop-off in volunteers is so concerning that Martha’s Table hosted a roundtable last month with other local food access and social service nonprofits to strategize and share ideas on how to attract new volunteers and keep them engaged. They are attending community events, offering tours, and visiting colleges and high schools to share their story. They are also making their pitches on social media, creating opportunities for virtual volunteering and trying to make the work as convenient for volunteers as possible. One organization delivered sandwich makings to a company so that its employees could volunteer to assemble lunches there rather than travel to the site.
As demand for services continues to grow, the essential role of volunteers has become ever more apparent. Without them, the attendees acknowledged, the scope of their work would be impossible. And for some, it could threaten or eliminate programs altogether.