Let me share a few facts with you about volunteering in Alaska. First, we have a tradition of volunteering. Alaska ranks among the top five states for volunteer participation and consistently exceeds the U.S. average with an estimated 40.6% of Alaskans volunteering as of 2019. Second, volunteers contribute to the economy. The latest study from Independent Sector notes that volunteers typically contribute nearly $200 billion to the national economy. Here in Alaska, volunteer service is worth an estimated $594.7 million – a significant contribution to our economy. In 2020, the per-hour rate for volunteers in Alaska rose to $30.30 placing us 13th among all states and the District of Columbia in hourly rate.
Volunteering enhances organizational impact, improves the volunteer’s quality of life, and creates momentum for a more fully engaged society. A U.S. Census Bureau survey found that volunteers donated to nonprofits at double the rate of non-volunteers, and twice as often as not, they performed favors for neighbors. We know the power of volunteerism in Alaska. It comes as a helping hand that reaches across generations, missions, and politics.
Beyond the people power and economic value that volunteers bring, why else do they (you) matter? A recent study by American Health Foundation highlights the mutually beneficial exchange for volunteers. “Civic participation improves individual, community and societal health. Civic participation expands an individual’s social network and increases their social capital, which can lead to employment opportunities and, in some cases, improve mental health.” They go on to note how studies show that volunteering literally reduces mortality rates, lowers blood pressure and obesity rates, reduces depression, and overall increases life satisfaction and well-being. It’s much to be grateful for both in our own lives and for those we touch every day through acts of service.
So why talk about this now? Hasn’t this always been true? Well, yes, but – and this is a big one – the recent Great Resignation and the Great Reshuffle that has hit our workforce is also impacting our volunteers, both those on the board and those on the ground.
To dive a bit deeper, national data and anecdotes galore show the pandemic had already taken a big toll on our volunteer pool. Organizations with no staff grappled with either a doubling or tripling demand for services like food and shelter, while at the same time figuring out how to keep volunteers and clients safe from the virus. And we saw organizations like arts and culture groups close their doors and curtail stheir volunteer opportunities in the name of public health. Meanwhile our board members were expected to hold it all steady – to not miss a beat – to move to Zoom or move to more meetings, more decisions, more stress because that was and still is required. Ramping down, adapting, ramping up – it all takes a toll.
A recent Gallup study found that in 2021 the giving rate went back up, but the volunteering rate was still down. The study reports that volunteerism fell from 65 percent to 56 percent between 2013 and 2021. While the volunteering rate among higher-income respondents hardly changed between 2017 and 2020, it dropped in 2021. At the same time, rates among middle-income respondents dropped until 2021 when they remained steady, while rates among lower-income respondents fell precipitously. All this information and experience on the ground is hard. And yet, we must adapt and persevere. After all, volunteers hold the fabric of our communities together.
What does all this mean for us in Alaska? We have data showing that the more rural the community, the more volunteerism we see. This makes sense, of course, because we often move at the speed of trust, and the closer we are with one another the easier it is to trust enough to say “yes” to an opportunity to serve. That said, we also experience in both urban and rural settings what we call “the same five people problem,” which is that no matter what room you are in, you find the same five people doing the work. This is not unlike the idea that if you want something done you ask a busy person. Still the ramifications of one of those people opting out because of pandemic burnout or personal reevaluation could easily create a ripple in a community that can feel like a big wave.
Another way to view our circumstances is to highlight the difference between board volunteers and direct service volunteers and how we see the churning of people right now. For example, of the 5,300 Alaska nonprofits only about 1,200 of them have staff. This means that services as essential as pantry food distributors, pet rescue groups, and quality of life options like concert ushers are run by volunteers. Without them, we simple lose the ability to serve our communities. And even those with staff can’t lift the weight of mission on their own – volunteers are an essential part of so many missions you count on in your community. Board volunteers are equally essential. Every nonprofit regardless of scope or scale has a volunteer board of directors who are legally and financially responsible for the organization’s health. The state requires a minimum of three people to be on a board, but boards can be as large as they need to be. A natural or structural churn is built into board service either through term limits or normal attrition. We expect shift. It is one of the reasons that organizations with staff are often more stable. They keep the momentum when the board is naturally shifting. However, there is natural shift, and then there is too much shift – all at once. In a preferred scenario, no more than a third of the board completes a term at a given time. If this is happening, then a plan is usually in place. But what happens when departures are unplanned and too many go?
Another hard reality in Alaska is that most of our organizations don’t have a person in charge of managing volunteers, either board or staff. We have too few paid volunteer coordinators, often if it is a designated staff job it is stuffed into another role to catch as catch can. This also means that if we have staff, we are often relying on the executive director to manage and lead the board volunteers – an awkward relationship at best. Few organizations have assigned the board itself to this job and fewer still have a staff person outside of the executive to coordinate and support the board activities.
So here we are with the compounding issues of a volunteer shortage. Now what? Well, acknowledging the reality of volunteer life within your organization is the first step. The second step is also universal – reach out to volunteers on your team (board and service) in a coordinated way and extend your gratitude in meaningful ways – not because it is the end of the year or not because you fear they may make different choices, but because you truly know this work is not possible without them. They are the backbone that makes mission work.
After those two steps, choices vary.
For mission-based volunteers. For some, the next step is to clarify the roles volunteers play and formalize those through written position descriptions that articulate success, specific tasks, and the accountability structure. Consider thinking about the work like a potluck. We don’t ask a single person to bring the whole meal, we break it into manageable parts. For some organizations, this could mean strategically partnering with those whose mission it is to provide community service volunteer time. Many mutually beneficial ways exist to serve both missions and the community at the same time. Think about these groups beyond your bubble. Consider service clubs at high schools or universities. Consider social and civic groups like adult sororities, fraternities, Rotary clubs, Soroptimists, social clubs, job corps and more. Consider prioritizing the work of volunteer coordination within your staff if you have them, or within the board if you don’t. While any of these steps will take time to organize, document, and implement, the long-term result is a broader bench of people providing a more stable force for good.
For boards. The norm in the cycle of board succession still is only on recruitment and not the other essential steps in a plan of thoughtful engagement and graceful exit. Even recruitment in most organizations is too often not as strategic as it could be. A rush to search and place is the norm. Ultimately the goal is a purposeful process to select and engage what are the right people at the right time to move mission forward. While there are many steps to making this process work, some tools make it easier. One of those is the active use of full board, officer, and committee job descriptions that are richer than what the bylaws articulate. Another is a more strategic use of a decades old tool – a board matrix. Unlike its too common use, a matrix is not simply a generic listing of characteristics, styles, backgrounds, etc. Instead, it is about being specific and aligned to the core purpose and values of the organization as well as clarifying what critical board actions need to be addressed based on the strategic and operating plans. The goal is to create a diverse mix of board members who together provide the wisdom and work to steward the organization toward excellence and mission impact.
There are many advantages of a board matrix including the ability to recruit beyond the same five people, to be strategically aligned, to imbed succession planning in the organization, to vet prospective candidates through a standard process to ensure “the right people at the right time,” and to knowingly recruit not just people with interest but people who will work to achieve the organization’s goals. All that said, being clear on your goals is a key agreement before using the matrix.
After decades of watching groups use a matrix and not getting any closer to meeting their diversity goals or tapping into new energy, it seems that the tool is instead being used to maintain status quo. Given our current challenges as boards reassess their priorities and as new spaces open across a wide array of board rooms, this is the moment to use a board matrix in a new way.
Consciously, your team could either use it (1) as an intentional “boundary spanner” to ensure that a greater cross section of your community is included in your recruitment plan, or (2) as a purposeful disruptor tool to ask deeper questions about how mission and community are represented in the board room. Without one of these clear intentions, the matrix will get you exactly what you have – the status quo.
Now is the time to rethink – adjust – adapt. Now is the time to be “on purpose” in your choices and your process. We have many ways to support you in your journey with board and mission volunteers through our board succession class series, one-on-one support to write or update your volunteer plans, and tools or facilitations to help you reach your goals.
As the year ends, and as we set out for a successful 2023, we extend our gratitude to all of you. To paid and unpaid staff and volunteers – THANK YOU. You are essential, and you make Alaska work.
Please visit KTOO public radio in Juneau for a recent story on the importance of volunteers to the well-being of a community.