Volunteers in US say they work mostly through religious organizations
By Patricia Zapor
A report on volunteering released July 28 by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency, also noted that nonprofit organizations without religious connections are missing an opportunity by not partnering with faith-based groups.
The report, "Volunteering in America 2009," found that nearly 62 million people in the U.S. volunteered in 2008, an increase of about 1 million from the previous year. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report said 83 percent of the country's congregations participate in or support social service, community development or neighborhood organizing projects.
It said that, although the greatest percentage of volunteers do so through religious organizations and studies have found such volunteers are more likely than others to keep a long-term commitment to the work, only 15 percent of nonprofit charities with secular missions have partnerships with faith-based organizations.
"Nonprofits looking to expand their reach and impact may find it beneficial to work more closely with religious organizations in their communities, especially in these tough economic times," said a statement from Nicola Goren, acting CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Young adult volunteers, ages 16-24, made up nearly half the overall increase in the number of volunteers, the report said, growing to 8.2 million from 7.8 million between 2007 and 2008.
It noted that charitable giving in 2008 declined over the previous year for the first time in more than 20 years. But with the number of volunteers nationwide on the increase, many organizations that were hit by declining donations were able to compensate somewhat with unpaid help, it said.
One of three organizations reported relying more on volunteers because of the economic downturn. The report said that trend is expected to continue, with 48 percent of the organizations saying they will rely more on volunteers this year. Thirty-three percent of the organizations said they expected to cut staff in the coming year.
Staff cuts can't totally be covered by volunteers, the report noted. "While increased reliance on volunteers has proved to be a useful strategy for coping with the economic crisis, it is hardly a panacea," it said.
Eighty percent of the organizations that responded to the survey had experienced "fiscal stress" in the period between September 2008 and March 2009, it said.
Organizations that can't keep paid staffers also are more likely to find it more difficult to manage and retain volunteers, the report said.
"While volunteers are playing and will continue to play an instrumental role in helping the nonprofit sector survive the economic crisis without reducing its services, over the long run it will be important to avoid thinking of volunteers as a substitute for paid staff," it said. "To the contrary, in normal times it is precisely the presence of paid staff that makes volunteer assignments most effective."
Another part of the report investigated why people do and don't volunteer.
"Nonvolunteers see themselves as essentially different from volunteers," the report said, explaining that they think of volunteers as retirees, people without children and with "an excess of leisure time."
"While these characteristics may be true for some volunteers, research shows that volunteers span a range of demographics, including age, race, marital status, employment and parenthood," the report said. What it called a disconnect between perception and reality could be important to recognize for organizations looking to recruit new volunteers.
It suggested that organizations showcase current volunteers and their stories to "help nonvolunteers see that they are just like volunteers."
Many people who don't volunteer hesitate because they don't want to make an indefinite commitment of time, it said. And they said they are more likely to volunteer if someone they know asks them to do so. While some said they would prefer to be able to use a skill they already have, others said they'd prefer to learn something new.
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