More work, fewer hands

Students participate in a Junior Achievement exercise in Lauren Manning's fifth grade class at Prairie Creek Intermediate School. CREDIT JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT OF EASTERN IOWA

It’s no secret that employers have struggled with workforce issues over the past year – first with a massive loss of workers spurred by an economic downtown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently, with filling employment vacancies as the economy rebounds and pandemic restrictions are lessened.

But those same forces have conspired even more dramatically against nonprofit agencies, many of whom have been faced with a dramatic uptick in demand for services, while at the same time, the number of volunteers – the lifeblood of most nonprofits’ operations – plummeted, with pandemic-related restrictions on in-person contacts.

So, when wage-paying businesses can’t find employees, how can nonprofits expect to find volunteers willing to work without compensation?

For Erin Kurt, senior vice president of Junior Achievement of Eastern Iowa in Cedar Rapids, the service world turned upside down March 2020 with the onset of the pandemic. In fact, she said she wasn’t sure if the entire organization’s functions would be fundamentally impacted, since Junior Achievement’s mission – educating students in grades K-12 about entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy — depends on experiential, hands-on programs, presented by volunteers in an in-person classroom setting.

“Starting last March, everything stopped for us,” Ms. Kurt said. “We did modified online [programs] for that last month or two of school, and then we went into the fall thinking, ‘OK, this has to be turning around at some point.’ But the schools in our area – not only were they figuring out how to educate students during a pandemic, but here in the Cedar Rapids/Marion area, we had the derecho effect as well. So, we really didn’t get a grasp on what the schools needed, or were able to do this year, until probably the October, December or January timeframe, whereas normally we know before August. So, even trying to determine our volunteer needs was very delayed.”

That uncertainty was particularly impactful for an organization like Junior Achievement, Ms. Kurt said, because the group’s entire mission is predicated on engaging community volunteers and pairing them with area school districts.

“Actually, all of our programming has to be delivered by a volunteer,” she said. “That’s one of the premises of Junior Achievement, trying to bring that relevancy into a classroom. Teachers are amazing, but that school is their world. Having an outside [professional] come in gives the students another perspective. The teacher could say the same thing all the time, and it’s 100% accurate, and the kids tune them out. But if you have a volunteer come in and say the same thing, all of a sudden, it’s like new information. They hear it differently.”

In a typical year, Ms. Kurt said, Junior Achievement would have a roster of around 1,300 volunteers visiting classrooms and presenting business-related curricula throughout Eastern Iowa. By contrast, she said JA started the school year with as few as 30 volunteers and expects to end the year with about 300 after a “big push” during the year. Of those 300, Ms. Kurt said she’s not even sure how many of those volunteers will return to JA in the fall, since many were JA newcomers offering their presentations virtually, rather than in person.

“With all the limitations of allowing volunteers, we had to get creative,” she said. “We had to go digital with our volunteering, which is a whole different style of volunteering than we’ve ever had before. We had some volunteers who would make that transition, but it also required us to find new volunteers that are comfortable with technology.”

Many of the group’s longtime volunteers are of a generation that didn’t employ technology during their careers, she noted.

“They’re very comfortable with the pen and paper version of what we have but asking them to do it online really changed things,” she said. “For Junior Achievement, we were finding that we really had to almost look for a new prototype, a volunteer that’s comfortable using their phone to deliver content or having Zoom interaction with the classes. But to not be in person had to be OK. That was just a different style of volunteering.”

CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank in Iowa City faced a different set of volunteer challenges as the pandemic took hold, based partly on the demographics of the group’s volunteer base, said Nicole Kilmer, the organization’s marketing and communications director.

“Our food bank saw a decrease in volunteers for several reasons,” she said. “Prior to COVID, our volunteer pool was mostly students and retired individuals who were considered high risk. Having said that, we also had to reduce the amount of people at our original food bank at 1121 S. Gilbert Court in Iowa City [because] that building had a limited amount of space for volunteers and clients. At that location, we were fortunate to have AmeriCorps members, as well as some individuals in the community to come in and help.”

As the group’s food bank services returned to client choice shopping – a service suspended in the early months of the pandemic – the group moved its food bank to an 11,000-square-foot space at the Pepperwood Plaza. At that location, Ms. Kilmer noted, “we are able to be more socially distanced, which also meant we needed more volunteers to be able to run operations each day. We were able to receive funding to increase staff with temporary staff, and since people have been getting vaccinated, we have seen stability within our volunteer numbers. Quite a few of our pre-COVID volunteers have started to return, and we continue to see that number increase.”

CommUnity’s crisis services also experienced volunteer shortages, but for different reasons, Ms. Kilmer said.

“We had a shortage, of sorts,” she noted. “But the reason for that was because we couldn’t do our Gold Standard of ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training). It has to be in person, that’s a standard of our training. So we had to develop our own online training to make sure people were safe and competent, and that took a long time. We had more people wanting to volunteer than we could actually handle. It takes a significant amount of time for the training, and we lost some potential volunteers due to attrition. We don’t have nearly the amount of volunteers that expressed interest in the beginning of the pandemic. [But] if we follow up with the volunteers that are signed up, we will have the most volunteers that we have ever had since we started to keep records.”

The two groups’ volunteer stories are far from unique. A November 2020 study conducted by Fidelity Charitable found that the COVID-19 pandemic drastically increased demand for many nonprofits’ services, while sharply diminishing their volunteer workforce and changing the ways that any remaining volunteers can serve. According to the study, 66% of volunteers had decreased the amount of time they were volunteering during the pandemic or stopped volunteering altogether.

The report also indicated that 65% of those who continued volunteering engaged mostly in virtual or remote volunteer activities, versus just 17% who did their work remotely pre-pandemic. And 64% of donors indicated they didn’t know where they would go to find virtual volunteering opportunities.

Ms. Kurt said she’s much less certain than normal how many volunteers will return to the Junior Achievement ranks in the fall – especially those who may have been away from the group for a year or more and have lost contact with the program. Also unknown: How many of the volunteers who’ve come on board in a virtual role in the past year will be willing to transition to Junior Achievement’s preferred in-person service.

“I think last year was kind of an introductory experience for them, so I’m hoping they might be interested in doing some more things in person,” she said. “We do have some new programs we’re putting together that require some technology, so we’re still going to have an opportunity for folks that are more comfortable with the technology version. But I just don’t think it’ll be the same percentage of our volunteer base as it was in the past. Over time, we’ve been able to track our volunteer retention rate, and we know that we keep around 60% of our volunteers from year to year, so we plan accordingly. But going into this summer – I have no idea. All those other volunteers that didn’t do anything for us this year — how many of them will come back? We need to remind them that we need them, that they’re important to us.”

Yet like most large-scale crises, the pandemic has also provided learning opportunities for nonprofits – new ways to recruit and engage volunteers, keep contact with them and expand volunteer networks. Ms. Kurt compared the current recovery period for nonprofit agencies to the recovery of the Corridor after the devastating 2008 flood.

“Look at all the benefits that have come out of that in the end, now that we’re distant from it,” she said. “Necessity is the mother of invention. We learned to make things work. We’ve had to change, and we’ve had to change quickly. That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of [the changes] when things go back to normal. We’re going to see an evolution. I think in-person is still going to be primary for us. But we have new opportunities now that we wouldn’t have imagined even two years ago.”