Relief, Rhythms (1932) – Robert Delaunay (1885 – 1941),” Pedro Ribeiro Simões

November 13, 2020; New York Times

Since the start of the pandemic, NPQ has frequently reported on the impact COVID-19 has had on volunteer programs and the adjustments organizations have made to replace some of the more familiar face-to-face experiences. Now, a new report from Fidelity Charitable seeks to quantify the extent to which voluntarism among donors has been interrupted. And for most, there has been an interruption, at least temporarily; according to the research, more than two-thirds of the donor volunteers surveyed decreased or stopped their volunteering due to COVID-19.

In this study, Fidelity Charitable’s respondent base comprises a convenient sample of donor-advised fund donors. It’s important to note before we go on that these may or may not represent donors as a whole. What’s interesting about the research, however, is that it gathers the thoughts and behaviors of these donors over two moments in time, hearing from 1,842 donors in March, just as the pandemic was getting started, and a smaller number—491—in August.

Here is what they found in the words of the study:

  • In March, before social distancing guidelines were issued, 30 percent of volunteers in the general population said the amount of time they volunteer had increased in the past two years.
  • But the pandemic dealt a real blow to nonprofits who rely on volunteers. In August survey, two-thirds of Fidelity Charitable donors said they decreased the amount of time they volunteer or stopped entirely due to the pandemic.
  • Many volunteers who wish to continue giving their time have turned to virtual or remote volunteer opportunities, but virtual volunteering remains little-known among most Fidelity Charitable donors. The majority of volunteers prefer in-person or on-site activities.

In the March survey, researchers found significant overlap between financial and volunteer support, with two-thirds of donors having volunteered within the last year. This indicates that donors desire to provide more than just financial support to their favorite causes.

Additionally, the research found that individuals are more likely (53 percent) to donate before volunteering with an organization. However, 39 percent are more likely to volunteer before donating, which suggests that a significant subset of donors prefer a “try-before-you-by” approach to determining whether to support a nonprofit.

While there are positive correlations between donating and volunteerism, more than 75 percent of donors stated that they would give the same amount to their favorite nonprofit even if they did not volunteer. However, this may change as Millennials become more involved in philanthropy. One-third of millennials surveyed said they would give more to a nonprofit they volunteer with compared to 21 percent of Gen X and 12 percent of baby boomers.

Fidelity’s research indicates that millennials value impact and transparency. Obtaining support from this group in the future may hinge on creating meaningful volunteer opportunities to connect with an organization’s mission. In addition to opportunities to volunteer, Millennials prefer to get involved in unique ways. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed sought out skilled-based volunteer opportunities. In contrast, Gen X and baby boomers preferred traditional volunteer roles such as neighborhood clean-ups or delivering meals.

For nonprofits concerned about volunteer retention post COVID-19, the research is promising. Nearly 75 percent of donors expect to return to their pre-pandemic routines. However, in the interim, more attention needs to be placed on improving the virtual volunteer experience. Thirty-eight percent of donors that shifted to virtual volunteering indicated that they were mostly or very satisfied with their virtual volunteer opportunity while 27 percent were only a little or not satisfied at all.

As nonprofits consider how temporary and long-term volunteer trends impact operations, Fidelity’s research can provide insight into how to craft better roles that increase volunteer satisfaction and financial support. Some things to consider include:

  • Developing more skills-based opportunities. As Millennials become more engaged in philanthropy, unique experiences to meaningfully connect will become important to securing donations
  • Creating opportunities to connect. More than 80 percent of volunteers preferred in-person volunteering for the community and socializing benefits it provides. While most volunteers intend to resume in-person volunteering, the unknown duration of the pandemic requires better remote experiences that factor in connection to community
  • Improving virtual volunteering experiences. The small subset of donors that preferred virtual volunteering noted schedule flexibility, ease of volunteer role, use of more specific skills as top factors for volunteering virtually.
  • Knowing the Organization’s Target Volunteer Demographic. While religious organizations enjoyed support from all generations, advocacy and political campaigns saw increasing support from Millennials. Youth organizations show outsized support from Gen X volunteers, which is probably because they are more likely to have kids involved in programming.
  • Being Proactive in Marketing Roles. Don’t assume potential volunteers know where to search for volunteer opportunities. While VolunteerMatch, local United Way chapters, and Points of Light offer virtual volunteer listings, two-thirds of Fidelity’s respondents were unaware of how to seek out virtual volunteering roles and more than half had never heard of virtual volunteerism. Make sure to market virtual volunteer opportunities to new and former volunteers.

Fidelity Charitable’s research does provide a glimpse into current volunteer motivations and trends, but it goes beyond that. In a turbulent environment, it provides a sense of how this particular dynamic is playing out and what nonprofits might do to maintain the fullness of their relationships with donors. What would help now is a look into what factors could satisfy those who aren’t happy with current virtual experiences. NPQ welcomes articles on this topic from readers.—Chelsea Dennis