Is volunteerism in America dead? No. All across the country there are untold numbers of organizations that would not exist if not for the efforts of volunteers. Yet that leads to the question of why so many of those organizations still don’t have enough volunteers to meet their need. What is so different about volunteerism in the modern era as compared to decades past?
Volunteering, like everything else, evolves over time. As such, you could point to a lot of different factors that might explain why volunteers are getting harder to find. At the Junior League of Salt Lake City, they know as well as anyone that recruiting women volunteers is almost a full-time endeavor.
From their perspective, there are two big issues that make volunteerism different in 2019. Those issues are less time and greater need.
People Have Less Time
If you’re old enough to remember events like the first moon landing and the end of the Vietnam War, you probably also remember a time when life was a lot slower. People weren’t running back and forth every waking hour of the day. They weren’t consumed with always being connected in one way or another. Volunteering was easier back then because people had more ‘disposable’ time.
Things are different today. In many American households, both parents work just to pay the bills. Time not spent working is used to shuffle kids wherever they need to go, thanks to a child-centered culture that cannot bear the thought of kids actually staying at home and having quality time with family.
Older adults with teenagers and college age kids are working harder than ever before to save up for retirement and keep pace with the Joneses. And as for retirees, they have adopted more active lifestyles that tend to fill up their time with endless activities. Some seniors even continue working during those years when they should be resting. It all adds up to a lack of time to put into volunteerism.
The Need is Greater
A lack of time alone doesn’t explain why it’s getting harder and harder to find volunteers. The other side of the coin is that the need is greater in the 21st century.
The National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) says that roughly 1.56 million registered nonprofits existed in the U.S. in 2015. That number represents more than a 10% increase from a decade earlier. When you look at year-on-year increases, the numbers are even more surprising.
According to a 2006 analysis from Bridgewater State College researcher Michael Jones, the number of new nonprofits registered every year hovered around 10,000 in the years immediately following World War II. Sometime around the mid-1960s, registration numbers jumped to 20,000 new organizations annually. By the turn of the 21st century, almost 50,000 new nonprofits were being registered every year.
It stands to reason that more nonprofits require more volunteers to make them work. If the rate of growth among these organizations exceeds the number of people willing and able to volunteer their time, a volunteer shortage is inevitable. That seems to be where we are today.
A Perfect Storm
Volunteerism is not dead in America. But it is changing. As people have less time to give to volunteer efforts, existing organizations struggle to meet even the most basic needs. New organizations put greater stress on the system by competing for an already limited number of volunteers.
In essence, we now have a perfect storm creating just the right circumstances to make volunteer recruiting difficult. Hopefully that storm will begin to subside sooner rather than later.