Engaging Volunteers the Way They Want to Serve

Traditional volunteering is giving way to microvolunteering, ad hoc and virtual volunteering offering more episodic experiences and meaning through direct community service.

The data shows this tendency to seek small assignments and episodic experiences through direct community service is not a new phenomenon. Nonprofits have just been slow to restructure volunteering to match this reality.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found about 25% of Americans volunteer (women at 28% and men at 23%). Whites and more educated people volunteer at higher rates; although the BLS doesn’t explain why, it’s a reasonable guess that they have more money and time to do so.

Religious organizations are the top overall beneficiaries and children’s organizations are a priority for parents. Only about 7% report providing management and professional level assistance including serving on boards and committees. The median annual volunteer hours is 50.

BLS finds people ages 35-44 years old are more likely to volunteer. Pew research finds that Millennials are volunteering at a higher rate than other generations, perhaps because many were exposed to service learning in school. Volunteering may correlate with life stage. If so, the combined effect of the Millennials’ propensity to volunteer and their entrance into the peak years for volunteering could bode well for nonprofit organizations.

However, Millennials are more likely to volunteer with organizations aligned with their generational values and digital work environment preferences. And Millennials have a high interest in work-life balance and seek volunteering experiences that fit into their life priorities. Microvolunteering and virtual volunteering align with this preference.

There is another common pattern across volunteering and employment studies: people seek fulfillment, social recognition and personal development through these life experiences. To attract high performers, organizations need to encourage meaning through self-development and personal goal achievement.

It would seem the sweet spot for the future of volunteerism will be offering direct, high-impact experiences that fit into people’s busy lives yet align with their desire to grow and create meaningful lives. For associations and nonprofits, this means less reliance on the traditional governance structures based in boards and committees and finding a way to engage people the way they want to serve.