Volunteers are becoming more valuable every year as fewer people offer their time and a growing share of the workforce brings otherwise costly skillsets to the nonprofits they serve.
That’s according to recent data from Independent Sector, a national nonprofit leadership network. The organization estimated the dollar value of volunteer time in 2015 at $23.56 per hour, a 49-cent-per-hour increase from the year prior.
Independent Sector admits, however, that this number is only one estimate, and that it’s nearly impossible to put a dollar amount on the actual value of volunteers. Nonprofits generally don’t even have the technology or processes to perfectly measure that information, so “while we feel it gives us a good indication, it certainly isn’t airtight,” said Ellen Carpenter, vice president of marketing for Heart of West Michigan United Way.
Determining the value of unpaid positions can be especially challenging when the volunteer is providing more than one service or skillset. Nonprofit boards, for instance, are comprised entirely of volunteers including lawyers or accountants, who often have high-salary day jobs, but they’re not necessarily functioning as lawyers or accountants on that board. Still, the skills and experience they bring with them make their work invaluable, said Kyle Caldwell, executive director for the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
“When you look at boards, they take on a lot of risk,” he said. “They’re making decisions about how an organization spends its time, talents and treasure, about an impact an organization has on its community, and about the future of that organization and its integrity. So the value of volunteers in that space is immeasurable.”
Nonprofits look at data to track general trends and anticipate future need. One statistic of note for the sector, both in Michigan and nationwide, is the volunteer rate, which is the lowest it’s been in at least 12 years. According to the Volunteering and Civic Life in America research conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship, 24.7 percent of Michigan residents volunteered in 2014, as opposed to 32.8 percent a decade earlier. This is in large part due to how nonprofits are approaching volunteerism, according to Katelyn Kovalik, the volunteer center program coordinator for Heart of West Michigan United Way.
Increasingly, nonprofits are looking for volunteers with specific skills to help build capacity and do so efficiently. United Way referenced a project in which the organization built playground equipment for 14 different schools in one week. The task would have been impossible without a retired project manager from Steelcase volunteering to oversee the project.
Another West Michigan nonprofit, Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes, relies on the help of people from the manufacturing industry to better understand processes, systems creation and lean management.
Kovalik said this shift toward specialized work has changed the way United Way looks at the numbers.
“With how we collect metrics on volunteerism, typically people want us to have total volunteers, just building an army of them,” she said. “But as we dabble more in that skilled volunteerism, it’s almost like less is more and we’re doing quality over quantity. The value of volunteers goes up, while the number of people you engage on an annual basis might go down slightly.”
The receding volunteer rate could just as easily be attributed to the arrival of a new generation, according to Caldwell of the Johnson Center. The issue isn’t that millennials lack empathy — in fact, studies continue to show that they look for a social mission, as well as community engagement, in potential workplaces and colleges. Rather, the generation gives to social causes through crowdfunding and social media activism, he said.
“In traditional measures we ask through the census data, ‘how often do you volunteer?’” Caldwell said. “I think we’re measuring volunteerism — the giving of people’s time, talent and treasure — in a very old way that’s not picking up on where this generation is engaging. I don’t think they invest less. As a matter of fact, I think they invest more, and they do it more globally now.”
Kovalik agreed, explaining that “millennials are more experiential” compared to baby boomers, who tend to focus more on the measurable value their work will provide. The younger generation wants to feel connected to a community and have a great experience while doing so, she said. It’s not necessarily about changing the work, but “how we present the opportunity to them.”
Still, the scale of this shift can be alarming for some organizations. The aforementioned Volunteering and Civic Life in America research showed that 21.7 percent of millennials volunteered in 2014 nationwide, compared to 29.4 percent of Generation Xers and 27.2 percent of baby boomers.
Those numbers have raised concern, considering that 85 percent of nonprofits nationwide are run entirely by volunteers, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Even nonprofits that have a paid staff almost always require volunteers.
One local example is Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, a food pantry that used 74,440 volunteer hours in 2015. The nonprofit considers its volunteer workforce to be one of three indispensable resources, along with food and the staff. To measure this resource, the nonprofit assigned an estimated dollar-per-hour rate for each unpaid position, which averages out to $12.20 per hour across all workers. In total, volunteers in 2015 contributed an estimated $963,629 of labor to the organization.
“As we look to the future, it’s kind of scary to think that if we lost a great portion of these volunteers, how would we do this work?” said Executive Director Jennifer Johnson. “We still have folks that have worked with our organization for 30 years, but I don’t know that I can say that about Generation X or millennials. Knowing that means we’re probably going to have to change how we distribute food. We might have to have less sites so that we don’t require as many volunteers, etc.”
To mitigate the generational shift and build capacity overall, nonprofits are increasingly turning to collaborative programs with for-profit corporations to bring in volunteers. Johnson said companies are beginning to implement policies that allow and encourage staffers to volunteer on company time. Doing so benefits both parties, she said.
“We, as a charity, have been here for a long time and are proudly serving some of the people that these corporations serve,” Johnson said. “This gives them an opportunity to step into the shoes of people who are in the community struggling with food insecurity and see from a different perspective what it’s like to be on that side of things. … I have one group that kind of fights with each other over who gets to go each week. They really look forward to this work.”
Caldwell shared similar sentiments, expressing that for-profits receive value from volunteering as well, even if they’re on the giving side.
“When you think about the role that volunteers play in community, they get information about what a community needs, what it has as its vital assets and its core soul,” he said. “That understanding can be incorporated in how your for-profit enterprise works with its customers and engages with its community. The value that volunteers get for their own operation is equally valuable, and in fact, perhaps even more so.”