Volunteer Perspective – Industry Insights 2019: Results and Impact on the Nonprofit Sector

A group of diverse people pose for the camera with blue shirts that say "volunteer"
Katie Zwetzig
Katie Zwetzig, Executive Director of Sterling Volunteers

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Katie Zwetzig, Executive Director of Sterling Volunteers

The building blocks of a great volunteer program begin with an in-depth understanding of your volunteers. What inspires them to action? What keeps them coming back? And what do they need from you to improve their experience?  In late 2018, Sterling Volunteers partnered with VolunteerMatch and reached out directly to more than 7,200 volunteers to find answers. The resulting research study, Volunteer Perspective: Industry Insights 2019, reveals the latest trends in volunteerism and sheds new light on volunteers’ current attitudes toward screening, training, recruiting, retention and more. These insights into volunteers’ needs, preferences and motivations offer a valuable resource for designing and building stronger volunteer programs.

Sterling Volunteers logo.

Here’s what we learned:

Engage and recognize volunteers by tapping into their skills, interests and desire to learn

Volunteers give of their time and energy for many reasons, some more apparent than others. Most commonly, they want to contribute to a cause they care about (83%) or to improve their communities (66%). But these aren’t the only factors driving them. Volunteers say they are also looking for opportunities to socialize (35%) and to build skills in a particular area (22%). When asked what keeps them engaged, volunteers cite understanding the impact of their volunteer service (78%), the relationships they’ve built with the communities they’re helping (62%) and continued opportunities to develop skills and gain experiences (44%).

Recognizing your volunteers for their hard work is also important – but equally so is the form that recognition takes. Volunteers say they prefer their work to be recognized with opportunities and personal notes over gifts. More than two-thirds of respondents say they would most prefer to be recognized with handwritten thank you notes and kudos from staff members, or by being selected for unique opportunities, like special projects or training.

Embrace the reality of “free agent” volunteers

Perhaps the most significant behavioral shift revealed by our research is how today’s volunteers give of their time.  Some 75% of volunteers say they serve more than one organization. Just five years ago, this number was around 35%. Volunteers no longer tether themselves to one organization in the way previous generations did. In the past, a volunteer might have devoted every Saturday to the local food bank. Today, while a volunteer may still work at the food bank, he or she is also serving meals to the homeless, transporting elderly residents and helping out in her child’s classroom.

Nonprofit organizations can no longer count on “owning a volunteer.” Considering the effort and expense you invest in training volunteers, this understandably may not sit well. But our research indicates that for those organizations who embrace this new “free agent” reality, the payoff is worth the shifting paradigm. The data shows that the more organizations a volunteer works with, the more time they’ll give each time they volunteer. In fact, nearly one in five (18%) respondents involved with four or more volunteer programs give more than five hours each time they volunteer, while only about one in ten (12%) of those who work with three or fewer organizations will donate that much of their time. Volunteering widely, it appears, actually begets more volunteering, not less, as committed volunteers lean into giving.

That’s not all. Volunteers that work with multiple organizations also tend to donate more. Nearly half (49%) of volunteers who give more than five hours each time they volunteer also say they are “much more willing” to make a financial contribution to the organizations they volunteer with — significantly more than those who regularly volunteer for one to five hours.

Educate volunteers about background checks to encourage trust

Background checks, once regarded as an inconvenience or a necessary evil, today signal that an organization cares about the community’s safety and is doing its due diligence, which contributes positively to the volunteering experience for most volunteers, according to the research.  Education around background checks seems to be pivotal to that positive experience. A majority of volunteers (58%) who indicated being very familiar with background checks also say background checks strongly affect how they feel about volunteering in a positive way, versus 35% of those who were unfamiliar with the process. Background checks seem to demonstrate to volunteers that they can trust the organization and the community of volunteers with whom they’re working. The more effort you put into educating your volunteers about the process and value of background checks, the more willing they’ll be to have a check done – and even to cover a share of the cost, according to the data.

Volunteers also are receptive to solutions that can expedite the screening process. About two-thirds of respondents (68%) express interest in a volunteer-focused picture ID/digital credential housed on their mobile device that can prove their identity, verify their screening history, track trainings and hours, and allow them to check in at volunteer locations. More than half of respondents say they would be interested in purchasing their own portable background check, one that could be shared by the multiple organizations they volunteer with, helping to facilitate a network of vetted volunteers.

Use technology to communicate – and then communicate some more

There are so many ways today to reach your volunteers. Not surprisingly then, yet for the first time, technology beat out word-of-mouth as the primary means respondents say they use to find volunteer opportunities. Respondents indicate they find most new volunteer opportunities online (57%), through platforms like VolunteerMatch, and through friends (44%), social media (39%) and online searches (38%). 

Volunteers are not just finding opportunities – they themselves are open to being found, or recruited, by nonprofit organizations for new volunteer opportunities.  More than half of respondents say they would love to receive information online about local volunteer opportunities and would welcome learning about current opportunities without having to do the work of actively seeking them out.

Alongside our partners, Sterling Volunteers has begun to build an online volunteer community, a volunteer marketplace of sorts, so we also asked volunteers what they would want most in this new community. Their responses included volunteer opportunity search, the ability to be recruited by organizations with opportunities, networking with contacts at nonprofits as well as with like-minded volunteers, access to online training related to volunteering and the ability to track their volunteer hours.

It’s clear from the research that volunteer program managers must be prepared to engage with volunteers online. And that’s great news because volunteers are hungry to connect. The easier we can make it for volunteers and organizations to come together, the stronger our communities will become.

The volunteering landscape continues to evolve, requiring us to innovate in the ways we engage with volunteers and to develop the tools and resources that foster strong relationships between organizations and their volunteers. By better understanding volunteers’ connections to the causes that matter to them, we can develop solutions that support them and make program improvements that yield real dividends for our organizations, our volunteers and the communities we serve.


Katie Zwetzig is excited to be leading the revolutionary change Sterling Volunteers, the dedicated service sector unit of Sterling—the world’s leader in background and identity services—is bringing to the nonprofit and volunteer industry. Katie holds an MA in Marketing from Colorado State University and a BA in Finance and Marketing from The University of Colorado. Katie feels strongly that nonprofits and volunteerism are at the heart of a strong community.

Editors note: This article was originally published with the previous name and logo of Sterling Volunteers, Verified Volunteers.

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