How Will the Economic Crisis Affect Volunteering?

By Susan J. Ellis

The world economy is what’s on everyone’s mind.  Just as most people, apparently including the economists, were caught by surprise by the rapidity of the monetary crisis, no one can predict what will happen next or how long the news will be negative.  (And in the United States, we’ll have a newly-elected president to add to the uncertainty.)

The economic situation affects us all as private individuals and within community sectors.  So this month I am tackling the question:  How will a recession affect volunteering? Will volunteering increase, decrease, or change in some way as the financial situation becomes more dire? Having no claim to clairvoyance, I hope you feel compelled to share your hopes, fears, and predictions by posting a response as well.

We can reasonably expect greater needs for human services and less funding to meet them.  Homelessness, hunger, mental health problems, crime, and other bleak conditions may be on the rise.  Concurrently, things that seem less “essential,” such as the arts, may find themselves losing the donors they enjoy in wealthier times.  In other words, the demand for volunteer effort will be greater than ever.

It is also true volunteers pay for their volunteering expenses from their discretionary funds, not their grocery money.  So as people have less money for all things, it will indeed be harder for volunteers to lay out cash as well as give time.  Therefore, smart organizations will increase the amount of funds available to reimburse volunteers for out-of-pocket expenses, especially transportation and gas.  It might be time to do some fundraising specifically for this need, stressing to donors that money to reimburse volunteer expenses is leveraged hundreds of times over by the value of the services made possible by the reimbursement.

Looking Below the Surface

At first glance, the financial crisis seems like unending bad news.  But might there be any silver linings? Let’s examine some common assumptions and possible outcomes.

Assumption #1:
In hard times, people “can’t afford” to volunteer.


As the economy falters, more people will visibly be in need.  In other words, it will be evident that both donations of cash and of time really matter.  Making a difference is a primary motivator for giving. 

Even in a recession, no one wants to feel they’re at the bottom of the totem pole – there’s  always someone in greater distress.  Keep in mind, too, that research (in good times) on financial donors often concludes that, in terms of percentage of income, people of modest means give more money than the wealthy. 

Volunteering comes into the picture when people feel they cannot give money but can give time.  Such substitution is especially viable for people who are already committed to an organization’s cause.  And again, as the needs become more obvious and incontrovertible, it is easier to make the case for the value of pitching in to make things better.

Substituting skills for money has been a pattern in corporate philanthropy, too.  Corporate foundations may give fewer grants in a recession, but look to employee volunteering as an alternative or supplement to help agencies.

Do development officers recognize this pattern?  Do they make sure that the invitation to donate  time as a volunteer is extended alongside the plea for a cash contribution?  The organization that allows supporters to blend time and money may end the recession with more volunteers and ultimately bigger donors.

Assumption #2
When people are suffering financially, they have self-centered priorities and are less likely to think about the needs of others.


Under financial pressure, people’s survival needs must come first. But the same pressure can elicit creative response in the form of mutual aid.  The clearest example is barter, whether of goods for services or services for services. During the Great Depression, in fact, barter was elevated to an art form as communities without available cash organized exchanges of unpaid work.  What’s interesting about barter is that the value of the exchange is in the eyes of the parties involved, not necessarily the marketplace. So if it’s worth it to me to walk your dog in exchange for a bag of vegetables from your garden, we have a deal.

The implication for volunteer management is to adapt this natural barter process to organizational or client needs.  Instead of the model of recruiting an outside volunteer to “help” clients in need, we might organize mutual exchange among clients themselves.  What can they do for each other, given the chance? 

Or, what does your organization have that a prospective volunteer might value, especially if money is tight?  For example, perhaps a sole practitioner accountant with a small office might be happy to consult with the board on financial planning, in exchange for the chance to schedule a presentation to accounting clients in one of your meeting rooms occasionally.   

Assumption #3
Financial worries cause mental depression, fear of the future, and other difficult emotions that cause people to withdraw.


We’ve become much more knowledgeable about the “spontaneous volunteering” that happens during natural disasters and other immediate crises.  There’s strong evidence that people who respond to an emergency by rolling up their sleeves and joining with others to do something are overcoming the feeling of helplessness or powerlessness that a disaster evokes.  This applies to other types of crises, too. 

Through volunteering, especially with others who have mutual concerns or needs, people feel less isolated and more in control.  This implies that, rather than ignoring the depressing news stories, we might recruit new volunteers by using the crisis.

Concerned about the future?  Think what seniors on a fixed income today must feel. What better time to brighten their day with a friendly visit?

Kids know their parents are worried about money (you may be, too). Show them that having fun with an adult mentor doesn’t have to cost anything but an afternoon.

Finally, as unemployment increases, more people may a) be looking for new jobs; b) have lots of unwanted time on their hands; and c) welcome opportunities to build new skills that will help them in the job hunt.  It’s a real plus to be able to avoid a “gap” on a resume while job hunting.  Actively recruit unemployed people with the approach of:

You are still wanted for your talents!  As you seek new work, spend part of those long days with us.  Keep your resume current and help others at the same time.  Etc…

Again, this type of welcome, coupled with work the new volunteer enjoys, may win you a long-term volunteer even after new employment is found. 

Assumption #4:  
Anything that isn’t a human service is of low importance in a recession.


Naturally, basic human needs come first.  But the old labor strike slogan of “we want bread and roses” still resonates. In other words, it’s as important to feed the soul as the belly. 

Unfortunately, some cultural arts, recreation, and environmental organizations limit their outreach during a crisis, feeling that it is unseemly to divert people from more pressing needs.  While this attitude may be understandable, it is also misguided.  It is precisely at such times that groups and institutions offering beauty, relaxation, and other spiritual nourishment have an opportunity to demonstrate their worth.  It’s a chance to break the elitist image and actively engage people as audience members, participants, and volunteers because it’s a needed, reviving break from bleak times.

The Big Obstacle

There is one important issue to acknowledge here.  Organizations that have not welcomed or invested in volunteers in “good” times are less likely to be successful in a recession than those entering it with a solid volunteerism infrastructure already built.  It’s very hard to play catch-up in the middle of a crisis.

In the same vein, many of us have unfortunately witnessed organizations’ attempts to cut their budgets by laying off the manager of volunteer resources!  Seen as a “soft” position unconnected to primary client services, this job seems easy to eliminate – ironically, exactly when the organization wants more volunteers. Yet who is the person most capable of responding to the situation and need?

OK.  It’s your turn. 

We’re all caught in this financial mess and share the same concerns. 

  • What do YOU think is going to happen to volunteering in the next few months and years?
  • What are you already seeing? 
  • What can we do about it?

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