Over the past six months, I have seen a lot of news coverage about declines in the number of people who volunteer, both nationally and in New York.
In November 2016, the Chronicle of Philanthropy covered a recent report released by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency focused on service, which stated 24.9 percent of the U.S. population – and 17.4% of New Yorkers – had volunteered in the past year. In January, the New York Daily News cited a study by WalletHub, a personal finance website, that ranked New York as the 38th most charitable state with low volunteerism as the main contributing factor. The federal government’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics says that volunteerism has been on a downward trend for the past 10-12 years.
While I don’t question the validity of these reports, the results do not match the reality in which my staff and I work every day. Over the past five years, while experiencing steady growth of our volunteer base, we’ve seen unprecedented responses from volunteers to natural disasters and calls to civic action, and we’ve seen the NYC nonprofit sector leverage the power of volunteers more effectively to become the city’s primary source of critical social services.
The response from New Yorkers to the impact of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the recent outpouring of volunteer energy after the 2016 presidential election are two recent examples of the enormous capacity for giving that exists within New York City. In the span of eight weeks following Sandy, 15,000 new volunteers joined New York Cares and completed more than 2,000 service projects that included mucking out houses, delivering meals, and rebuilding damaged public spaces. In the week following the election, new volunteer registrations doubled compared to the previous week, with New Yorkers ready to perform their civic duty beyond the voting booth.
During and following the 2008-2009 recession, the U.S. nonprofit sector took a profound hit, facing critical funding shortfalls. Many nonprofits turned to volunteer programs to help fill the gap. In fact, at New York Cares, the number of nonprofits and schools we serve with our volunteer programming has nearly doubled over the past ten years to 1,300 agencies. Well-known New York City nonprofits and grassroots organizations alike are tapping into the power of volunteers to grow their programs and serve more New Yorkers in need.
The Daily News quotes Joel Berg, chief executive officer of Hunger Free America, as saying that New York City’s pace and cost of living make finding time to volunteer difficult for the average resident. Within this busy culture, however, I see an opportunity to engage more New Yorkers by focusing on developing efficient, flexible, and impactful volunteer opportunities to ensure a volunteer experience that is worth making time for.
New York Cares was founded on the belief that individuals can make a real difference in improving NYC only if they have the necessary tools to achieve scale and impact - planning, logistics, measurement, quality control, and customer relationship management. Many of our partners and fellow nonprofits are approaching volunteerism with the same principles of efficiency and flexibility, and seeing similar growth in their volunteer numbers and a subsequent increase in capacity to serve.
So, the reports on declining volunteerism might not paint a picture of burgeoning volunteerism in NYC, but, when coupled with the trends we are seeing in the field, they certainly serve as the latest call to the nonprofit sector to continue to shift the way it works with volunteers and community groups. At New York Cares, we are not only committed to bringing tailored and time-tested volunteer programs to nonprofits, but to providing volunteers with rewarding and transformative experiences that keep them coming back. If the sector continues to collaborate in this way, we will start seeing growth in volunteerism again on a local and national level.