New research: Volunteerism in trouble

As nonprofit organizations continue to face an increase in demand, limited resources and reduced staffing capacity in the wake of a global pandemic, new research finds that volunteer engagement has become more — not less — important to advance their work.

But volunteers are now harder to find and engage.

The Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement, together with The Do Good Institute, has released new insights from more than 1,000 nonprofit CEOs and 100+ funders about the state of U.S. volunteer engagement.

“This new study states that 46.8% of nonprofit CEO’s now say recruiting volunteers is a big problem,” said Craig Young, founder of the national nonprofit Inspiring Service and its local implementation, Cincinnati Cares. “That’s a big problem for communities, not just their nonprofits. Cincinnati Cares utilizes stay-of-the-art technology to connect prospective volunteers with their best-fit nonprofit organizations, providing the greatest ROI for community funders.”

Craig Young

The first-of-its-kind quantitative study on strategic volunteerism, “The State of Volunteer Engagement: Insights from Nonprofit Leaders and Funders” was conducted by Dr. Nathan Dietz and Dr. Robert T. Grimm, Jr. from the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

This research study is being released in tandem with a new study on funding volunteerism, “Investing in Strategic Volunteer Engagement: A Qualitative Study”, which was led by Dr. Sue Carter Kahl of Sue Carter Kahl Consulting.

The release of these new reports is timed with the official launch of the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement (, a new effort of funders and nonprofits who believe in the power of volunteers to expand impact and maximize mission accomplishment.

Together, the group will provide practical and research-informed tools and resources to help nonprofits intentionally engage with their volunteer networks and inspire funders to further invest in strategic volunteer engagement.

As COVID-19’s lasting impact on civic life unfolds, the Do Good Institute-led survey found more demand for nonprofit services. In 2022, nearly two-thirds (64.4%) of nonprofits reported an increase in demand for their organizational services, with 51.1% increasing their delivery of services, and 48.5% increasing staff workloads to help meet demand. At the same time, 28.7% of nonprofits are operating with less funding and paid staff than they had before the pandemic.

“This gap in funding and staffing makes volunteers even more important for many mission-driven organizations. Nonprofits will likely face staff burnout or service delivery issues if this continues. Many of these organizations offer critical services and support to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, so this is something we should all be concerned about,” said Nathan Dietz, senior researcher, Do Good Institute.

Nonprofits are challenged by finding and recruiting the right volunteer support as well as by the capacity and infrastructure needed to sustain volunteer engagement. Nearly half (46.8%) of CEOs say that recruiting sufficient volunteers is a big problem for their organization, with many sharing that their volunteers were doing less of any specific organizational activity today (ie. delivery of services, fundraising or advocacy).

Despite these challenges, nonprofits seem to be more convinced of the benefits of volunteer engagement compared to recent years. The percentage of nonprofit CEOs who believe “to a great extent” volunteers allow the organization to provide more detailed attention to the people served increased from 37% in 2019 to 65.6% in 2022.

However, there is a gap between funders and nonprofits on the value and challenges surrounding strategic volunteerism. For example, 72.2% of nonprofit leaders felt that volunteers improve the quality of services or programs provided to a great extent, but only 25.2% of funders agreed. This lack of shared understanding can be problematic since funder investment is key to helping nonprofits recruit and engage more volunteers.

“Unfortunately, volunteers are more scarce in our post-COVID world. While nonprofits are putting more effort behind engaging volunteers, they are experiencing the triple whammy of greater demand for services, fewer volunteers and few funders with a track record of supporting volunteering. These troubling trends must be reversed,” added Dr. Robert Grimm, director, Do Good Institute.

“We believe in the power of volunteerism to advance mission-critical issues and causes, and that’s the main driving force for commissioning this research,” said Jeffrey Glebocki and Betsy McFarland, co-directors of the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement. “This research will be used to spark a national conversation for greater philanthropic investment in strategic volunteer engagement – and to equip more nonprofits to embrace strategic volunteer engagement for greater impact.”

The research announcement comes ahead of the release of the Initiative’s Strategic Volunteer Engagement Playbook — a framework for funders and nonprofits to leverage the power of volunteering to advance organizational goals and impact.

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