A new study found that two-thirds of all volunteers had started giving less of their time or stopped entirely.
By Paul Sullivan
Volunteering has fallen sharply in the pandemic, creating an enormous financial burden on the nonprofit organizations that have long depended on the free assistance.
Now, leaders of many nonprofit groups are looking for new ways to generate donations — to pay for both the rise in demand for their services and the work no longer done by the lost volunteers.
Steve Hill is one of those lost volunteers. He began volunteering at a free medical clinic run by his church in Salem, Ore., as soon as he retired.
“I retired on a Friday and started there on a Monday,” Mr. Hill, 65, said. For four years, he spent a day or two a week helping the doctors and nurses with their charts and medical orders and helping schedule visits.
That all came to a halt when the pandemic took hold in the Pacific Northwest in March. When the clinic reopened in June, Mr. Hill stayed home, worried about contracting the virus or bringing it home to his wife, who has chronic asthma.
“It’s left a huge hole in my schedule and my heart,” he said. “I just loved it so much.”
A study released on Wednesday by Fidelity Charitable, an arm of Fidelity Investments, found that two-thirds of all volunteers had either decreased or stopped their volunteering because of the pandemic.
A small number were interested in virtual volunteering — doing remote counseling, talking to homebound people or writing letters — which helps the people being served but not the nonprofit organizations themselves. According to the Independent Sector, a nonprofit membership organization, the average value of a donor’s time is $27.20 an hour.
“Many of the nonprofits are thinking, ‘We’re in this for the long haul, and we need to think of different ways to use our volunteers,’” said Amy Pirozzolo, the head of donor engagement of Fidelity Charitable. For example, many shelters that serve food have encouraged their volunteers to cook the meals at home and bring them in, she said.
Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to the elderly in their homes and at senior centers, has helped 47 percent more clients and provided 77 percent more meals since the pandemic started, because many older people feel less comfortable going to a grocery store, said Ellie Hollander, the organization’s president and chief executive.
At the same time, it has lost about half of its two million volunteers. Three-quarters of them were over age 55, putting them into a high-risk category for the virus. Making up for that sudden loss has not been easy.
“What we’ve had to do is hire more paid drivers,” Ms. Hollander said. “That’s been a huge increase in cost from the Meals on Wheels volunteers who used their own cars and paid for their own gas.”
Volunteer Match, a website that links people to volunteer opportunities, has also reported a decline in volunteers, a greater demand for services and the need for significantly higher donations so organization can replace the missing volunteers.
“What we’ve found was in March, 93 percent of all volunteering was canceled,” said Laura Plato, chief solutions officer at Volunteer Match. “We’re now at 48 percent still heavily canceled.”
While some nonprofit groups never reopened or have gone out of business, Ms. Plato said one positive note was an increase in organizations that address the needs of the pandemic. “We’re seeing opportunities we’ve never seen before,” she said. “No one was having mask-making parties in 2019.”
The Salem Free Clinic, where Mr. Hill volunteered, had about 350 volunteers before the pandemic and lost about 10 percent of them.
Now, “only the patient can get in there,” Mr. Hill said. “But at least they’re open and helping patients who don’t have health insurance.”
Judy and Janet Fireman, sisters in their mid-70s who volunteer at the Sister José Women’s Center in Tucson, Ariz., said many of their fellow volunteers had left, but they continue to cook for the homeless women they’ve come to know at the center over many years.
At the same time, the number of women served by the center has doubled to 70. And Janet Fireman said she and her sister didn’t have the same level of interaction.
“Since the pandemic protocol went into place, we don’t have the opportunity to talk to the women,” she said. “They’ve been kept apart from us and apart from anyone else.”
But the biggest difference for the sisters is that it takes almost two days to cook one meal, since they have to prepare everything at home and then take it to the shelter.
“We roasted 90 chicken drumsticks today,” Janet Fireman said. “We cooked 25 pounds of potatoes and used a liter of olive oil. The third dish we made today is a salad of frozen vegetables — peas, corn, cauliflower and red peppers.”
The salad “looks beautiful, and that matters,” she added. “We don’t want to open a can of green beans and drop it on their plate.”
The sisters said they had each increased their direct financial donations by 50 percent. While a protein — ground beef, pork or chicken — is generally donated by local grocery stores, the Firemans said they had been paying for the extras out of their own pocket.
Changing the way people volunteer has been hard for nonprofits and the volunteers themselves. At the heart of the change is the need for money to pay the workers who have replaced the lost volunteers.
Ms. Plato of Volunteer Match said 57 percent of nonprofits surveyed in May were operating with a lower budget than they had before the pandemic began. In July, when the virus numbers were declining in many parts of the country, those nonprofit groups were still struggling, with 63 percent operating on a reduced budget.
“Some corporations have stepped up their financial commitments in lieu of volunteering,” she said. “But the financial situation of many nonprofits we surveyed hasn’t improved.”
Some nonprofit groups have leaned on volunteers to cover some of their operating costs, as was the case with the Fireman sisters.
That was also true for Kathy Wentworth, who has been volunteering with Guide Dogs for the Blind in Boring, Ore., for two decades. She worked mostly in the kennel kitchen but also gave tours of the campus.
In March, she was asked to take a guide dog home, saving the foundation the costs of caring and feeding it. Other volunteers were asked to do the same. The dogs stayed longer than expected when wildfires near Portland in September kept the foundation closed.
“I’ve really missed the community of people,” said Ms. Wentworth, 67, who has been retired from the golf business for six years. “I got to know a number of the trainers and the people who worked on the campus. I really enjoyed the job out there.”
The trainers have still been able to work with the dogs to prepare them for blind people. “If anything,” Ms. Wentworth said, “my donations this year may increase because there’s so much need.”
Still, it’s hard to make up for volunteers’ time. When they will feel safe enough to return, no one knows. But organizations are trying hard to keep their volunteers feeling connected in the meantime — and to increase their donations. It hasn’t been easy.
Mr. Hill said he and his wife had continued to donate the same amount of money to the clinic. And he has enjoyed staying in touch with its director to hear how things are going. But there’s only one thing that would get him to return as a volunteer, he said: “A vaccine.”
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