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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Volunteer administration: What has changed in recent decades?

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Big news! Results from my most recent Volunteer Management Capacity Study are now posted at the Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement (AL!VE) website. If the details on the investments, challenges and practices in volunteer administration are something you are interested in, then please go take a look at the new report. It follows up on a study that I conducted back in 2003, when I reported the country’s first national snapshot on the readiness of nonprofit organizations to provide good experiences for their volunteers.

If you really want to dig back, you can also page through the briefing report from the original 2003 Volunteer Management Capacity Study. That study was the federal government’s idea, and I was in the right place at the right time when they were looking for somebody to do it. President Bush (the younger one) had given a State of the Union address where he encouraged everybody to go volunteer more, and that prompted the White House to want to get a better handle on the topic. The national survey of nonprofit organizations provided our first benchmark insights into the nation’s readiness to handle an onslaught of new volunteers.

Should we expect that much has changed over a 20-year period? There’s a post going around my Facebook right now that notes how almost all of humanity lived through periods of nearly imperceptible social change, whereas the first flight at Kitty Hawk (1903) and Armstrong’s walk on the moon (1969) are only separated by 66 years. And since that moonwalk, smartphones and the internet have put the preponderance of human knowledge into our pockets. The world is moving fast. Is that the case for volunteer administration?

Honestly, the new study reveals that a lot of things have NOT changed much since 2003. The number of Americans who volunteer each year hasn’t changed all that much, and organizations still rely mostly on older volunteers. The new study tells us that nonprofit organizations still under-invest in staff who recruit and manage their volunteers. These organizations still only dabble in recommended practices (like crafting job descriptions for volunteers, training staff to work with them and evaluating their work), with a few organizations setting the curve and most lagging behind. Nonprofits in 2019 report the same kinds of challenges in working with volunteers that they did in 2003. On the other hand, they are still effusive about the financial, programmatic and expressive benefits that volunteers bring to their operations. Today’s sector bones look a lot like the sector bones twenty years ago.

That said, saying “there’s not much change” would be a disservice. Truly, there are a couple big changes over the past couple decades that make today’s volunteer administration look very different than it did two decades ago. One is a movement away from the long-term, long-hours super-volunteer. A second is the technology revolution.

Turn the clock back, say, 50 years, and you’d see more of the civic engagement that characterized the post-World War II era. More recently, Americans started making different choices about how to spend their off-work time, but a half-century ago you could still easily find people who worked the same regular volunteer gig for hours on end, year after year. By 2000, though, these super-volunteers were harder to find and observers were pointing to the need for nonprofits to provide shorter term or temporary opportunities. More volunteers started volunteering hour-to-hour or day-to-day. “Episodic” became the new watchword of the field.

By 2019, short-term volunteering was nearly as prominent as long-term volunteering. We asked our nonprofits to consider “short-term” as occasional or seasonal volunteering, and “long-term” as ongoing and regular with an expectation that the volunteering will continue indefinitely. We learned that 47.2% of volunteers are in short-term assignments. This requires nonprofits to manage to the interests of two very different types of volunteers. That’s a “new” challenge that has evolved over the last several decades. We may not be far from the day when episodic volunteers are the majority.

A second social change is huge: The diffusion of information technology into all parts of our lives. This is not unique to volunteer administration, given how technology has transformed both home entertainment and our workplaces. Nonetheless, volunteer administration is caught up in this sea change, adjusting as best it can to a new world. Managers use websites to advertise volunteer opportunities, computer applications to track and assign volunteers, and social media to tout work and recognize the efforts of volunteers. Sure, nonprofits were using computers in 2003, but technology has accelerated its penetration into our lives since then. What’s fairly new (or newly prominent) is volunteering assignments conducted entirely virtually or remotely. In our 2019 survey, we learned that nearly one in eight volunteers (12.3%) qualified as “virtual volunteers.”

When our research team finished collecting survey data at the end of 2019, we patted ourselves on the backs. A few months later, COVID-19 completely scuttled the work of many nonprofits, and especially their engagement with volunteers. We went from one-in-eight virtual volunteers to virtually everybody working remotely. Today we seem to be “returning to normal,” but the immediate future will look different from where we left off in 2019. During the pandemic, volunteer managers got new experience with remote work, and volunteers got a taste of new horizons. We seemed to already be on a path toward remote options for volunteering in 2019, but the pandemic provided a shove. That tough love probably means that technologies will continue to transform how nonprofits engage and manage their volunteers.

What has changed in volunteer administration since the turn of the century? In some ways, not much has changed. The field has the same needs and faces the same challenges. However, the social needs of volunteers have changed, and the way that they expect to engage their communities has changed. Volunteer administration must change with it.

Note: The 2019 Volunteer Management Capacity Study was funded by AmeriCorps, a U.S. federal government agency.

Mark Hager is associate professor of nonprofit leadership and management at Arizona State University. He is principal investigator of the Volunteer Management Capacity Study; the second wave was funded by AmeriCorps for 2017-2021.

Mark Hager


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