“People just don’t commit like they used to!” is a common complaint of leaders of volunteer engagement who find themsevles confronting the new trend of shorter-term volunteers. Many of us struggle these days with recruiting volunteers – or, at least, the kind of long-term volunteers we used to find. If you ask a group of volunteer managers about the changes they are seeing in the field, it is highly likely that they will point to the rising number of volunteers seeking shorter commitments to fit their busier lifestyles. Then will come a lively conversation about how this trend disrupts the way that most volunteer managers prefer to operate.
Figuring out how to engage such evasive volunteers in service has been the subject of many conference presenters, with the consensus seemingly being “involve these shorter-term volunteers or else your organization will soon be extinct.” According to most field experts, cultural shifts have led to more individuals choosing to volunteer in ways that fit their lives and interests – and, in many cases, this means short bursts of activity and resistance to commitment.
Despite the anecdotal, shared experiences of volunteer managers, there is little documentation of these changes and few resources on how to deal with the preference for volunteer work in shorter chunks of time. Is this trend a tidal wave of one-time or few-month commitments, or are organizations still seeing a balance of volunteers willing to commit for a range of time periods? Which organizations have successfully welcomed short-term volunteers and how? Are there any pitfalls to avoid? The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) set out to answer these questions in a two-year initiative starting in 2014.
It seems important first to note that we found no common definition of what is a “shorter-term volunteer.” From our research, it was clear that all organizations view one-time volunteering as short-term, but beyond that the definition varied from including three- or four-month volunteers, and beyond. To assure clear communications, we feel that it is better to discuss the specific length of commitment, such as “one time” or “less than four months,” rather than talking about “shorter-term volunteer” as if this label could be used to compare a volunteer role from one organization to another.
MAVA has watched the trend of shorter volunteer time commitments grow over the past several years. Responses to our Status of Minnesota Volunteer Programs in a Shifting Environment surveys showed that 44 percent of organizations in 2013 and 55 percent of organizations in 2014 witnessed an increase in volunteers seeking limited time commitments. MAVA decided to follow up on these results and dive deeper to better understand this trend and how organizations were responding.
We organized a task force of volunteer administrators from a variety of sectors and held World Café style focus groups (Terry Straub explained this technique in his 2014 Training Designs article, “Enhancing Volunteer Engagement Through AoH: The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations That Matter”). The first session invited MAVA members to come and share their experiences and was primarily attended by members in the Twin Cities Metro area. The second session was held at the 2015 MAVA Conference on Volunteer Administration and drew participants from around the state. In addition, the task force administered a survey of our members and contacts to gain input from a broader group of people. In total, information was gained from over 300 nonprofit and governmental leaders; the full survey report is available at http://www.mavanetwork.org/shorterterm. Lastly, MAVA offered two mini-grants to organizations willing to try new approaches to engaging short-term volunteers and to share lessons learned.
Our respondents acknowledged receiving requests for shorter-term volunteer work, but only as a moderate trend, rather than a tidal wave, with 56 percent reporting only “a little increase” over the past three years and 44 percent “a lot of increase.” When we asked what portion of volunteers making shorter commitments comprised the overall volunteer pool, one-time and several-month volunteers were still a small portion of the volunteers for most organizations. Nearly half of the organizations responded that these volunteers were less that 20 percent of their volunteers, and only 35 percent reported that shorter-term volunteers were more than 30 percent of their volunteer pool. From our survey, we concluded that this is a significant trend that organizations need to address, but most organizations are still able to balance having some volunteers whose service is ongoing and some who serve short term for several months or less. It is critical that nonprofit and community service agencies learn to understand and work with this trend while it is still manageable in size and scope.
We also learned that younger volunteers and job seekers are driving this trend. As much as the Boomers are criticized for making shorter-term commitments, the categories of volunteers that were most identified with shorter commitments were Millennials (72 percent), job seekers (52 percent), youth (52 percent) and GenX (47 percent). We consistently heard that a large part of the change to shorter commitments was generational with some comments such as, “We have found that the younger people don't like to make the longer time commitment,” and “Strongest age group that gives the most time is 65-79.”Many would agree that modern society has gotten busier. Daily life may have more uncertainty and as a result volunteers may not be able to commit to service as they once were able to. Younger generations are in school, working, or looking for work. Older generations may like to travel, are caretaking family members, or dealing with personal medical situations. What seems to be the case is that because of factors in life, volunteers are either seeking shorter-term commitments or are unable to fulfill long term-commitments as circumstances change.
More Survey Results
From the responses to our survey and the discussion in the focus groups, we drew some general conclusions.
1. Organizations are not collecting a lot of data on short-term volunteering.
What has most hindered our understanding of this trend is that most organizations are not collecting data specifically on how volunteer time commitments are changing. Less than half (45 percent) of the organizations responding to our survey reported keeping data on how long volunteers are staying, such as average of volunteer hours per year. Many of those that are keeping data on average volunteer hours per year reported that they have seen a drop over the past five to 10 years. Only 33 percent indicated tracking the return of one-time or shorter-term volunteers.
2. Volunteer managers are diving in to address the trend.
Volunteer managers are being proactive in understanding and addressing this trend. We heard:
“It is what volunteers want; let’s meet them half way.”
“Need to address rise in shorter-term volunteering to ensure success of our volunteer program.”
Naturally, volunteer managers were often the first in the organization to be aware of the trend and work to get their colleagues better understand the changes they were seeing. One person clearly articulated this, saying, “The writing is on the wall, yet no one else understands the impact other than the volunteer manager.”
3. There are positives to the shorter-term volunteerism trend.
When we asked the focus group participants what excites them about the trend, we heard that organizations were seeing some benefits to volunteers in roles with shorter time commitments. These benefits include:
- Even short-term volunteers connect organizations with more people in the community who have the potential to be ambassadors in the community and/or to be donors.
- These new volunteers can create access to more skills, new energy and/or ideas. The organization builds its capacity to become a “temp agency” for skills, connecting volunteers with opportunities as appropriate.
- Critical work still gets accomplished.
- It forces organizations to think outside the box, potentially resulting in new and valuable volunteer roles.
- Organizations may have an opportunity to meet their mission in a way not previously possible.
- It is a way to engage busy young professionals with the organization who might not be otherwise involved.
4. The challenges presented by this trend are real and frustrating.
Many organizations face critical funding reductions. Staffing can be tricky outside of regular business hours. Both factors may affect how programs operate on evenings and weekends. Unfortunately, the largest disconnect between organizations and volunteers is the times that work best for service. Organizations, it appears, are generally looking for volunteers when their staff is in the office and when client services are delivered. Alternately, volunteers (especially professionals, students, or fulltime caretakers) may only be available in the evenings and on weekends. Today, volunteers still want to donate their time, but it may not be during the times when volunteers have traditionally served. Most volunteers seek week day, daytime commitments (77 percent), flexible scheduling (61 percent), evening opportunities (42 percent), or weekend volunteerism (41 percent).
Frustration with this trend quickly surfaced in both our focus groups and in our survey. In fact, only 13 percent of survey respondents said they did not experience any barriers in addressing the trend. Lack of time to adequately support volunteers and follow organizational procedures were the main barriers identified. When asked “What factors might limit your organization’s ability to engage volunteers in roles that would take less than a four-month time commitment?”, respondents identified these top barriers:
- Staff time to train volunteers (62 percent)
- Staff time to screen and onboard volunteers (53 percent)
- Staff time to manage volunteers (52 percent)
- Staff time to recruit volunteers (49 percent)
- The work we have to be done does not fit with short-time commitments (39 percent)
- Staff being willing to work with shorter-term volunteers (32 percent)
- Financial costs, such as background checks (32 percent)
5. Despite their frustrations, many organizations are motivated to address changes in volunteer time commitments.
When asked, “When you do involve volunteers for commitments of less than four months, what is your "motivation?”, respondents indicated that they:
- Hope that volunteers will return for longer commitments (74 percent)
- Work that needs to get done (69 percent)
- Serves as a means to connect organization to the community (61 percent)
- Want community to view organization as a place that everyone is welcome (58 percent)
- Bring skills to the organization that we need (51 percent)
- Hope for a fundraising benefit such as volunteers becoming donors or companies that volunteer will also donate (42 percent)
6. Shorter-term options: may get volunteers in the door, but do they come back?
Some organizations have tried engaging volunteers in shorter-term roles as a way of transitioning them into longer roles; 61 percent of surveyed organizations reported trying this approach. However, only 1/3 said they tracked data to determine whether or not that approach was successful, which inhibits our ability to know if this approach is successful.
Very few organizations had data to share that they were successful in getting volunteers to return. Of those that did,the most common report was that about 10 percent of volunteers returned. However, a number of organizations were able to share success stories of getting volunteers to return, such as: “We had a student (high school) who started with us for the summer two-three months and has now been with us off and on for six years.”
For many organizations, the time available to invest in recruiting, training, and managing volunteers is difficult to come by, as expressed in the response to the survey question above. When a volunteer comes back to help on a repeat occasion, likely the volunteer already has a firm understanding about necessary tasks, therefore requiring less attention and time spent on supervision and training. As the old adage goes, “retention is recruitment.” Returning volunteers are more likely to have enjoyed their previous service experience and may also positively share their experience with family and friends. This means valuable PR for the organization which can have positive consequences on future recruiting and fundraising. The challenge for organizations is to ensure that all volunteers, especially shorter-term ones, find their service meaningful and want to return again in the future.
7. Be wary of involving volunteers in shorter-term roles without having a clear connection to the organization’s mission and vision
Our survey identified that volunteer programs feel pressure to offer shorter commitments from a variety of sources, with the main source being the volunteers themselves. In our survey, 45 percent of organizations said they feel pressure to involve volunteers in roles of less than a four month time commitment. The pressure was coming mainly from the volunteers requesting shorter timecommitments, but also identified from the volunteer managers themselves wanting to best accommodate volunteers with shorter-term commitments, from corporate groups, and from organizational leadership.
One of the most surprising findings was that 17 percent of organizations engaging volunteers in roles of less than four months reported that they do not see shorter-term volunteer roles as contributing to mission. Given the organizational time and investment needed to screen and onboard volunteers, it seems like a challenging disconnect to spend so much time and energy on a task that does not directly connect to the mission. This alarming finding was reiterated in our focus groups of volunteer mangers. Focus group participants felt pressured to involve volunteers in one-time or several month roles that were not seen by the volunteer manager as valuable or contributing to the mission.
8. However difficult one time, or several month volunteers are, many organizations rely on them to meet their mission
Despite the 17 percent of organizations not connecting short-term volunteers and mission, shorter-term volunteers are still critical to their mission. Of the organizations that identified seeing a trend of shorter-term volunteer commitments:
- 37 percent could not meet mission without volunteers making one-time commitments.
- 47 percent could not meet mission without volunteers making commitments of less than four months.
It appears that many organizations are interested in engaging volunteers who are only able to commit on a shorter term basis. However, one should consider the quality of service performed by shorter-term volunteers and its connection to the organizational mission before asking how to engage shorter-term volunteers and if they will return to the organization again in the future.
9. Shorter-term volunteerism is here to stay
When asked, “Three years from now, what change do you expect in how many volunteers who commit for four months or less that your organization engages compared to now?” we had this response:
- 34 percent expect it to grow a lot
- 46 percent expect it to grow a little
- 19 percent do not expect it to change
- 1 percent expect it to reduce
Echoing forecasts by experts in the field, volunteer managers know that life moves more quickly today than in the past, and generational differences affect how individuals choose to volunteer.
10. Take-away Strategies for Volunteer Managers
Over the course of this initiative, hundreds of strategies for responding to the shorter-term volunteering trend were shared with MAVA. Here are the top strategies that emerged from the focus groups and from the survey, along with some actual quotes from respondents..
A. Ensure shorter-term volunteers are a positive return on investment for your organization.
Ensure that it’s worth it for your organization to engage shorter-term volunteers. If there is not a positive return on investment, it does not make sense to have the shorter-term positions. If shorter-term volunteers cannot meet your mission, clearly communicate that to prospective volunteers. This will help them understand why your organization does not accept volunteers for shorter than a certain time period.
While I know the trends are for shorter placements, I hold strongly to the philosophy that it's not fitting for our organization most of the time. Setting higher expectations, communicating them before folks fill out an application, sticking to the policies, we are able to attract the kind of volunteers we need to fill the time commitment we require.
B. Be ready for change.
You will need to change how you operate if you decide to move forward with engaging shorter-term volunteers. Some organizations simply cannot achieve their mission using the work of shorter-termn volunteers. It’s likely that those organizations will still continue to operate using volunteers who seek longer term opportunities. For the rest of us, we have to be willing to change how we operate by thinking outside the box and being willing to take risks.
Take a volunteer centric approach. Think about what's in it for them and not just what is in it for us.
C. Know that organizational culture may be slow to accept shorter-term volunteers.
Often it is only the volunteer manager who knows that change is needed. It will take staff buy-in to support a model of shorter-term volunteers and to develop time-limited volunteer positions. Brainstorm with staff about benefits and opportunities of shorter-term volunteer positions as a first step to gain buy-in. Offer staff training on working with shorter volunteer time commitments.
The writing is on the wall, yet no one else understands the impact other than the volunteer manager.
D. Stay true to your policies, procedures, and mission.
While there may be pressure to engage an increasing number of shorter-term volunteers, don’t cut corners in order to get more volunteers in the door. Avoid creating tasks meant to keep volunteers busy unless they directly connect to a meaningful experience for volunteers or results for the organization. Ensure that your screening process is followed for the roles that require it. Do not bend on policies that you need to have in place. Know your mission and stay true to it.
Is the volunteer task meeting a true, mission-driven organizational need or it is self-serving, for the individual volunteer or group?
E. Design positions specifically for shorter-term volunteers.
Are there new positions that could be done by shorter-term volunteers that would help you meet your mission? Could you reconfigure existing roles to make them more manageable by someone who will only be there on a shorter-termbasis?
- Develop positions that do not take more training or supervision (time investment) than the results received.
- Offer to allow volunteers to share roles: Consider if your current positions could be divided into smaller, more manageable tasks.
Designing positions that specifically accommodate for a time limited commitment. By doing this, the volunteer expects to come in for a one-time basis and we expect the same from there which allows both parties to achieve what they are looking for out of the experience.
F. Develop a new approach to recruitment.
Recruit a larger base of volunteers to draw from and recruit specifically for new, shorter-term positions. Develop partnerships to help provide an ongoing supply of volunteers. Include key messages you want your existing volunteers to share. This will help spread the word about your organization in the community. Also ask existing volunteers for help in bringing in more volunteers.
Designing positions for a time limited commitment. We work closely with the local universities and colleges to design positions that meet the needs of their students as well as meeting the needs of our staff.
G. Develop strategies to move volunteers into longer-term positions and evaluate what works.
Design positions for shorter amounts of time, for example three months. When the three month time period is up, ask volunteers if they would like to sign on for another three months. You cannot assume volunteers will return without purposefully designing how that will happen and measuring if it actually does occur.
The way you recruit is different. It is almost like courting or dating. Ask something small then do a bigger ask once that is done. We feel that it actually works when approached this way. This allows people to see that there is enough time in their lives to do it.
H. Technology can help you be more efficient.
Use online scheduling tools to allow volunteers to sign up for and change their shifts. Streamline your screening process to a fully online application so that paperwork isn’t the barrier. Offer videos on your website for volunteer orientation and training. Schedule emails in advance if you have regular reminders that need to go to volunteers.
We have streamlined a few of our tasks to allow volunteers to perform them with only 10 minutes of training, so they can show up for an event to volunteer at a moment's notice and we will train them on the spot.
I. Rethink how you build relationships with volunteers.
Seek ways to have meaningful encounters with shorter-termvolunteers that promote a relationship. If done correctly, shorter-termvolunteers can be a much-needed boost to your organization, bringing new energy and ideas. More people coming in the doors means a greater awareness of community needs and how the mission of the organization meets those needs.
Energize the group – if you can make the connection to impact, get buy-in for the cause and greater exposure for the program.
J. Think carefully before saying “yes” to large groups seeking one-time service projects.
Determine the investment versus the payoff:
- Develop criteria for deciding whether to do a shorter-term group project: Only say “yes” if it fits with work that needs to be done or you can see a long-term, good relationship to cultivate. The bottom line is meeting the mission of your organization, not the needs of the group.
- Create a wish list every year and see what skills based projects there are and if you get someone in the door.
- Create a system that cultivates the same groups volunteering on an annual or period basis. This will help establish trust – you know you can count on them, and they on you. This will also help you plan. Include some training before the group arrives; provide ongoing support.
- Be present when the group is there; engage with them and promote other opportunities.
When taking on new volunteer opportunities, I try to find ways to break up the commitment for either groups of volunteers, or work with stations to help them understand that the position can be filled by two or three separate volunteers vs. one full time volunteer.
There are several key points to remember when dealing with volunteers making shorter commitments:
- Shorter-termvolunteerism works for organizations that have invested time and resources into position redesign and staff buy-in. For many organizations, shorter-term volunteers can work.
- Many organizations require extensive volunteer onboarding or have roles that need a longer commitment. If you are in that situation, don’t worry about pressure to involve shorter-term volunteers. However, communicate clearly to volunteers the organization’s rationale and see if there are other roles that support the mission. For instance, special event management and support or fundraising can be a good role for volunteers who cannot commit for a longer commitment. If those roles aren’t an option, be sure to refer the volunteer to an organization where their availability and skills can be better used.
- Know up front what successful implementation of a shorter-termvolunteer role looks like and make sure you track the data needed to know what is working well.
- Avoid engaging volunteers in shorter-term roles solely for the hope that many of them will sign up for ongoing volunteer roles. This may happen, but there is little data to support this is a good assumption.
- Don’t succumb to the pressure to involve volunteers in shorter-term roles if they do not help your organization achieve its mission.
- Volunteer roles that seem best suited for shorter-termare generally low in risk and in organizational investment. Risk includes the safety of clients involved as well as the security and well-being of the organization. Organizational investment covers staff time and financial capital needed to get volunteers through screening, orientation, and training. Examples of roles that are low both risk and investment include event set-up, stocking shelves in a food pantry, lawn maintenance for the elderly, etc. In some cases, the use of highly skilled volunteers in shorter-term roles could work well. For instance, a volunteer with verified skills in web design could help a nonprofit redesign their website or an accountant could help process tax returns for low-income families during tax season. In these instances, volunteers are in time-limited roles that do pose a higher risk to the organization involved; however, due to the focused nature of their service and their skill set they may require only minimal training in order to understand the organization.
- Now is the time to be proactive and get your organization on top of the trend and ready if generational shifts continue in the direction of increasing portions of volunteers looking for time-limited commitments.
Thank you to the MAVA members, volunteers, donors, and others who contributed to this initiative:
MAVA Shorter-term Volunteering Task Force:
Alan L. Kagan
MAVA Strategic Directions Committee
Survey development, focus group facilitation, research analyst, and report writing:
MAVA staff: Krista Eichhorst, Mary Quirk and Morgan Weis
PAVRO, in Ontario, for encouraging their members to respond to the survey
Foundation support: F.R. Bigelow Foundation for work in the East Twin Cities Metro Area
Thank you to all survey respondents, for taking time to share your struggles, opportunities, and strategies.