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Volunteers and the Economic Downturn


3 August 2009 at 4:21 pm
Staff Reporter
In the US the economic downturn has seen Not for Profit job losses and reduced working hours as the severe fiscal stress takes hold - but how have up to 60% of organisations claimed to have been able to maintain their services? A new report says a heavy new reliance on volunteers is the answer!

Staff Reporter | 3 August 2009 at 4:21 pm


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Volunteers and the Economic Downturn
3 August 2009 at 4:21 pm

In the US the economic downturn has seen Not for Profit job losses and reduced working hours as the severe fiscal stress takes hold – but how have up to 60% of organisations claimed to have been able to maintain their services? A new report says a heavy new reliance on volunteers is the answer!

According to new research by the Corporation for National and Community Service as part of the Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Listening Post Project in the US, volunteers have come to the rescue of the Not for profit sector in the economic downturn.

The research is based on a national survey that found that 80% of organisations have experienced some level of financial stress between September 2008 and March 2009.

The research says that one out of every three organizations reported increasing their reliance on volunteers to cope with the economic
downturn .

Whether because of the recession, or despite it, most (80% to 90%) responding organisations reported maintaining or increasing their use of volunteers.Whether this was measured by the sheer number of volunteers (88% of organisations reported maintaining or increasing the scale), the number of volunteer hours (84% of organisations reported maintaining or increasing this number), the ability to recruit volunteers (83% of organisations reported increasing or maintaining this capacity), or the contributions that volunteers made (83% of organizations reported increases).

The research says this reliance on volunteers is expected to increase further over the coming year. About half (48%) of the organisations expect their reliance on volunteers to increase over the next year, and only five percent expect it to decrease. This is so, moreover, despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, that 33 percent of respondents say they expect to cut staff in the coming year.

It says this increased reliance on volunteers seems to have yielded important dividends for organisations. 

The 33 percent of all organisations that reported relying more heavily on volunteers as a coping strategy during the September 2008-March 2009 period were more likely than their counterparts in the overall sample to report "very severe" fiscal stress (40% vs. 26%)

The researchers say that while increased reliance on volunteers has proved to be a useful strategy for coping with the economic crisis, it is hardly a panacea, particularly in the face of decreasing paid staff. 

One respondent in the research says that if there is not someone managing these volunteers, it will be difficult to engage and rely on volunteer support.

Data from the Hopkins Listening Post survey already reveal an emerging challenge in this area.

•  while 37 and 39 percent of organizations reported increases in the number of volunteers, and the number of volunteer hours, respectively, only 15 percent reported an increase in their ability to manage volunteers. On the other hand, over 10 percent reported a decline in this ability.
• Organisations that reported staffing issues, namely an inability to attract and retain staff, were also more likely than the sample as a whole to report declines in their ability to manage volunteers (27% vs. 11%, respectively);
• Organisations that both increased reliance on volunteers and increased their ability to attract and retain staff were more likely to report being “somewhat” or “very” successful financially as of March 2009 compared to those that increased reliance on volunteers but that suffered declines in their ability to attract and retain staff (67% vs. 33%).

The researchers say there are implications for the future.

They say while volunteers are playing and will continue to play an instrumental role in helping the Not for Profit sector survive the economic crisis without reducing its services, over the long run it will be important to avoid thinking of volunteers as a substitute for paid staff. 

To the contrary, in normal times it is precisely the presence of paid staff that makes volunteer assignments most effective.

The full report can be downloaded at  www.volunteeringinamerica.gov



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