- Research By Topic
- Student Programs
- Executive Programs
- GSB Social Innovators
- Community Engagement
- About CSI
Skip to Content
Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.
Volunteering remains a bright spot at a time when philanthropic giving is down and nonprofit groups are stressed by the economic slump. Yet, many nonprofit organizations fail to use their volunteers effectively and need to become more proactive in managing their volunteer talent, speakers told the audience at the annual Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford.
"Donations are down, but the need for services is up. Volunteering is one of the few growth areas," said Susannah Washburn, senior advisor at the Corporation for National and Community Services (CNCS), the federal agency that administers national service programs such as AmeriCorps.
Many nonprofits suffer from a "faulty understanding" of the value of their volunteers and "faulty execution" in using them, said Robert T. Grimm Jr., director of research and policy development at the CNCS. Grimm and Washburn urged nonprofit leaders to "plug the holes in the leaky bucket" of volunteering.
They were among the speakers at the conference Oct. 6 and 7, where the recession's impact on philanthropy was a recurring theme among the 300 nonprofit leaders attending. The gathering was sponsored by the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
Charitable giving was down 2% in 2008, the first drop in 21 years, according to the GivingUSA Foundation. Yet, 61.8 million people volunteered last year, up one million from the previous year. They donated more than 8 billion hours of service in 2008 worth an estimated $162 billion.
The CNCS experts cited several reasons for the strength in volunteering. "Do-it-yourself" service is growing as individuals take it upon themselves to organize initiatives. A "new civic generation" of 16- to 24-year olds that came of age during the Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina disasters is volunteering at higher rates than ever before. Aging baby boomers want to use their skills and experience in community service. Laid-off workers are volunteering to gain expertise and connections that could aid their job search. In addition, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, signed into law in April, paves the way for a major expansion of community service, including a tripling of authorized AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000.
But even as nonprofits need to rely more on volunteers amid the downturn, they fall short in managing this talent, the experts said. Consider this fact: more than one-third of people who donate their services drop out of organized volunteer work the following year. "It's not necessarily because they had a bad experience, but a bland experience," said Grimm.
Often, the organization undervalues its volunteers, asking them to stuff envelopes when they could be doing more skilled and mission-critical work such as fundraising, helping to write a business plan, or managing other volunteers. Nonprofits need to "change the paradigm" for what volunteers can do and "cast well" when matching a volunteer's assignment with their talents and passions, added Grimm.
Conference-goers also heard from Peter deCourcy Hero, MBA '66, former chief executive of Community Foundation Silicon Valley, about trends affecting philanthropy amid tough times. Nonprofits have seen their revenues plunge, but are being asked to do more because of the flagging economy. The result: mergers, budget cuts, reorganizations, layoffs, and greater use of volunteers.
Donations by high-net-worth individuals, who account for the vast majority of individual giving, slumped 9.7% between 2005 and 2007, and likely dropped even more in 2008, according to a recent Bank of America study. Amid the downturn, Hero said, philanthropies must "engage and animate" donors by seeking their advice, being transparent, and showing them measurable results.
Hero, now vice president for development at the California Institute of Technology, outlined several mega-trends for nonprofits to stay on top of in the coming years. People increasingly are directing their donations outside the United States, a reflection of globalization.
"Diaspora giving" is on the rise, Hero said, citing members of Silicon Valley’s large Indo-American community that increasingly are giving back to their homeland. U.S. community foundations are starting to help local donors give overseas, he noted. Donors, especially the newly wealthy, are seeking innovative ways of giving, such as joining giving circles or participating in venture philanthropy. The distinction between for-profit and nonprofit organizations is blurring as businesses increasingly seek to invest for social and environmental returns. Nonprofits are using technology and social media for communicating, publicity, and targeted fundraising.
"There’s more opportunity for all of us who work in the philanthropic sector to think more deeply when times are tough," said Hero, who serves on the advisory board of the SSIR.- Maria Shao
More from this series: Nonprofit Management Institute