Commentary: A V-Shaped Recovery for Volunteering?

Despite a record-low year in volunteering, the nation is primed for a volunteering renaissance in the post-pandemic 2021. Following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States experienced a multi-year historic increase in the volunteer rate. In the devastating wake of the coronavirus there will once again be a pent-up demand for impact and what will be a nationalizing sentiment of rebuilding, similar to what drove the previous volunteering boom.

Combined with the desire to be outside with others, which will finally be made safe again thanks to mass vaccinations, the conditions will be perfect for another country-wide volunteering movement.

Data from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy’s 2018 brief, “Where Are America’s Volunteers?,” showed that the United States was in the midst of a volunteering decline before the pandemic. The impact of the post-9/11 volunteer boom was over by 2006, which saw the first statistically significant drop in the volunteer rate. The infamous 2020 will inevitably mark the lowest volunteer rate since 2001, given the inability of so many organizations to continue with traditional in-person volunteer events. Safe volunteer opportunities have been few and far between this year. Greg Baldwin, CEO of VolunteerMatch, said that the organization “lost about a third of our postings almost overnight when things shut down in March.”

However, the same elements of crisis that have made this year so difficult will also serve to foster a recovery in volunteering efforts. This renaissance will be characterized by growth in the number of people who are willing to volunteer outside their own families. Americans will be looking for the opportunity to do more than just clean up their own home. They will be looking forward to working with others again after months of social isolation and virtual engagement. This impulse for in-person collaboration will be seen most in the youth of the next generation, who will be providing the majority of the upcoming volunteer labor force.

The post-COVID volunteer renaissance will also have a global tone, brought on by the world-wide impact of the pandemic, and will cement the importance of connectivity and community engagement in our culture moving forward. The need for volunteers during pandemic recovery will be so great that local, city, and state governments will also be pressured to make it easier to volunteer. People will be traveling to help their neighbors just as they did in the previous volunteer boom. The difference will be that it will be more of an international effort. There will be a sameness to the way people will rebuild at the same time that there will be a more tolerant attitude. There will still be petty differences, people will still be people, but there will be a greater understanding of the world as a whole and its unique situations.

The prospect of new momentum in volunteering is heartening, but this increase will still have to align with the measured rebuilding efforts of the social impact sector as a whole. As of October’s 2020’s report from the Center for Civil Society Studies (CCSS) at John’s Hopkins University, there were still nearly 1 million nonprofit jobs lost since the pandemic began that hadn’t yet been recovered. Jobs have been slow to return in the nonprofit sector, which also means diminished capacity to organize volunteering and therefore a longer-term approach to the next volunteer wave.

While some industries within the nonprofit sector rebounded over the summer, others, like educational organizations, have only seen continued loss of jobs. And recovery across the sector has slowed this past fall as new waves of infections (and corresponding restrictions) were put in place across the country.

The nonprofit sector is a key part of the future of the American economy. “We need a vibrant nonprofit sector to cushion our communities against the worst effects of a volatile, uneven recovery,” wrote the authors of the CCSS report. Nonprofits are also the backbone of America. They are responsible for meeting the needs in their communities that the government doesn’t fulfill — and they do it at less than half the cost of government.

That’s why the prospect of a steady but sure recovery in the nonprofit and volunteerism sectors should be supported by the government itself — rebuilding effort after the pandemic will necessitate the work and organizing efforts of nonprofits and volunteers across the nation, and our government has the opportunity to support these critical, community organization through the CORPS Act (which only currently covers the expansion of national service). Add your voice to the ongoing efforts to amend the CORPS Act and support nonprofits and volunteers near you.

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Rachel Clemens is content marketing manager and George Weiner is chief whaler at digital firm Whole Whale in New York City, www.wholewhale.com