Rebuilding the nonprofit volunteer workforce

Guest column by Karmit J. Bulman, Esq., executive director, Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (excerpted from Winter 2022 issue of Nonprofit News)

At MAVA, we keep hearing about a volunteer shortage. We know that since the pandemic started, many nonprofits furloughed volunteers and laid off volunteer engagement staff. However, other organizations were able to bring on more volunteers than ever to meet the needs of their communities. We also know that anyone can be a volunteer, so saying there is a “volunteer shortage” is like saying there is a “people shortage.”

Right now, nonprofits have a golden opportunity to examine systems, dismantle inequities, and innovate to rebuild the volunteer workforce.

Address Racial Inequities

Volunteer engagement has a critical problem: volunteers serving at nonprofits don’t reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities they support. Furthermore, modern volunteerism — the formal structures and processes by which most organizations engage volunteers — is built upon multiple characteristics of white supremacy culture. (Read MAVA’s “Recognizing Racism in Volunteer Engagement”).

Here are some tips for prioritizing race equity in your volunteer program:

  • Advocate for equitable hiring practices. Inform leadership of the importance of representation at both the staff and volunteer levels.
  • Promote an inclusive culture by making DEI education a priority for volunteers; speak up when you encounter biased or racist practices.
  • Listen to BIPOC voices: convene listening sessions of BIPOC volunteers at your organization and potential volunteers within new communities you’d like to engage; compensate participants and let them know how you use the information they provide.
  • Review policies and systems with an equity lens, including your volunteer application, handbook, background check policies, on-boarding system, training practices, and recognition.
  • Educate volunteers on race equity topics. Build anti-racism into your volunteer orientation and provide additional race equity trainings.
  • Build relationships in BIPOC communities: reach out to culturally led organizations in your area, be present at community and cultural events, and do the long-term work to build authentic partnerships based on mutual trust.
  • Engage in MAVA’s Race Equity in Volunteerism Assessment Program and trainings.
Reach out to Informal Volunteers

We need to loosen our definition of volunteerism in order to recognize the value of contributions of all kinds. Informal volunteerism may be the foundation of a new type of volunteer engagement. Acts associated with informal volunteering (visiting an older neighbor, giving advice, house-sitting) often don’t register as “volunteering.” It’s also important to recognize that informal volunteerism is a way of life for many communities of color and immigrant communities, who incorporate volunteerism into their way of life; but don’t call it “volunteering.”

More adaptive and inclusive models of volunteerism are needed to harness the capacities and resilience that exist within communities. We should also recognize that our current practices and structures may be counterproductive; if 70 percent of volunteerism in the world is done informally, now is the time to ask why they are not coming to organizations.

Expand Virtual Volunteering

Digital volunteerism — resulting from greater accessibility and sophistication of information and communication technologies — also reflects changing preferences for more informal volunteering. According to a report published by Volunteer Match: “Virtual volunteering is increasing in popularity among nonprofits as they seek out safer ways for people to give their time. In a survey performed in May 2020, 45 percent of nonprofits are now offering more virtual opportunities — up from 32 percent in March. As more nonprofits are feeling financial strain from COVID-19, virtual volunteering is an effective way to get the support you need to help raise or improve productivity.”

Virtual volunteer opportunities can include: writing fundraising letters or grants, responding to email inquiries, bookkeeping support, designing websites, social media, writing greeting cards, and so much more. Your organization can also develop “at-home” opportunities that do not rely on technology with ways to stay engaged if they do not have reliable access. The type of work will depend on your organization, but writing notes to program participants, making phone calls to elected officials, and many other options are a possibility.


MAVA (Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement) is the premier statewide organization uniting, educating, and advancing Minnesota communities through excellence in leadership of volunteers and best practices in organizational volunteerism. Learn more about their work.