At Foraker, we often talk about nonprofit sector data as BAD or best available data. Unfortunately, most data aren’t even BAD, but instead are anecdotal based on a small survey or a narrow, unrepresentative sample. Even worse, it is data that grabs you with a “click bait” title and results in trying to sell our sector something. I crave representative data and find myself skipping to the end of every report to see how the data was collected and if Alaska was even included in “national research.” Sadly, it often is not.
For these reasons, we are committed to working with Partners to gather the very best data we can from a variety of trusted sources to produce Alaska’s Nonprofit Sector: Generating Economic Impact. It is a big lift, so we only do it every three years. We also work with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development to report on the gender pay gap when complete data sets are available. And we do our best to gather a representative sample to provide our Salary and Benefits Report every other year.
So, when new reliable data is released, it is exciting news. And even though I wrote an article in December 2022 called Celebrating Volunteers: The Backbone of Nonprofits, I am back again, but this time with the most updated and complete data set on volunteerism across the country and in Alaska.
Even without the updated data, we know that Alaska sits in a unique position with volunteers. We know, for example, that of the roughly 5,600 nonprofits in our state, only about one-third have paid staff. That means, of course, that volunteers are delivering mission. To say that we as a society underestimate and lack deeper understanding of the value of volunteers is an understatement. So, let’s be extra clear – volunteers are essential to every single mission delivery model.
Yes, staff, I see you. Yes, I wish there were more of you. Yes, you have chosen an amazingly inspiring and essential profession that you should feel extraordinarily proud of every day. Yes, I hope that we can move beyond the trap of The Overhead Myth that is put on us by donors of all shapes and sizes (and we put on ourselves, too) so that you can be fairly compensated, have access to health insurance, have fabulous working conditions and more. (By the way, if you haven’t checked out this great video about how to get out of the overhead myth trap with your donors – check it out from our colleagues at Propel Nonprofits.) And, yes, you cannot do this work without volunteers in one form or another.
In the simplest terms, the State of Alaska requires that every nonprofit have a governing board of at least three people and the IRS insists that board members are volunteers – working for the greater good not their own personal interest. Most of our boards are comprised of between 9-15 people. The largest board we know of in Alaska is 75 and another is at 45. And there are hundreds of organizations that just have 3-5 people and teeter on the brink of existence on a regular basis. In simple math, that means that all 5,620 nonprofits have at least three people, which equates to 16,860 volunteer board positions and more likely if we average nine board members per organization, that is 50,580 board seats. Whew! These are Alaskans who through vocation or avocation are giving of their time, thought, talent, and sometimes treasure to the causes and missions that make Alaska work. Thank you!
We have often estimated the numbers of Alaskans serving on boards based on other civic engagement factors like voting which would mean that about a third of Alaskans over the age of 18 (the required minimum age for binding board voting) are serving as board members. This means that your average Alaskan adult board member is serving on 3-4 boards at any given time. Check out our classes on board governance if you want to know more about what that means. Let’s just say for now – it is a lot!
And, this is just board service. Many of our nonprofit missions rely on volunteers for service delivery, outreach and advocacy, and event coordination.
One would think – based on the essential nature of volunteerism that included 60.7 million Americans in 2021 who contributed $4.1 billion in economic value – that we might pay more attention as a society but there is surprisingly little data, research, or conversation on the topic across the country.
Consider for yourself how often you think about your volunteer pool and what data you are collecting in order to improve your processes internally. Consider how you prioritize volunteerism in your organization in terms of delegating authority to a paid staff volunteer coordinator or establishing a volunteer position for this awesome task. If you are like most, your answer is you don’t do much of any thinking or talking about this topic unless it is presented with some sense of urgency. While you are not alone, we can all do a better job with even some small steps to normalize conversations in our board and staff rooms. Let’s turn data to action in our board rooms.
To get us started, let’s first look at some highlights of the recent Alaska data that comes from a 2021 complete data set. This data was recently released in early 2023 from a national longitudinal study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps. While not perfect in capturing all that we want to know, it is trusted and reliable in its efforts—and it includes Alaska.
Source: AmeriCorps, in collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau, biennial Volunteering and Civic Life in America report, 2023.
Here is my favorite statistic because it feels like the Alaska I call home. More than 276,000 residents (or a roughly a third of all Alaskans) helped their neighbors in the height of the pandemic, and this is just the reported numbers. Alaskans help each other. The indigenous people of this place have laid the foundation for 10,000 years for how to live and thrive here and we add to that thousands of other world cultures of people who also were raised and have come to know that this is how Alaska works best – when we show up for each other – when we help our neighbor.
I would love to tell you that this new data, though inspiring, is good news. The reality is that volunteerism across the country shows that formal volunteering dropped more than 23 percent, from 30 percent of the public in 2019 to 23.2 percent in 2021 (at the height of the pandemic). At the same time, informal volunteering, such as doing a favor for a neighbor, remained stable during the period.
There are some obvious answers to why this was true given that so many of our nonprofits both in Alaska and across the country closed their physical doors and drastically scaled back volunteer opportunities in the name of public health even while most social service organizations were seeing a dramatic increase in the need for services (think child care and food insecurity). We also know we are far from on the other side of this real-world tragedy for so many Alaskan families.
And where do people turn? They turn to food pantries and other human service nonprofits and houses of worship to help them – and all of those services require volunteers. Now compound the problem with the rest of the information we know around the drop in charitable giving across the country, and the workforce shortages that we are all enduring (more on that in July with our latest findings), and the out-migration of Alaskans to the Lower 48. By all measure – even without all the data – we know, we feel, we see we have more work in front of us to move in the right direction when it comes to volunteers – both board members and mission operatives.
Moving to Action
We are here for you. We don’t have the magic answers to how we attract and retain our volunteer corps across Alaska, but we can share a few extra ideas beyond the usual. By the way, the usual is to remind you to say thank you – more often – more consistently – more authentically – more directly. Yes, do that please. And, we are going to have to both reimagine some aspects of volunteerism and double down on other ways that work if we can just make room for it as a priority in our regular practice. I encourage you to read the article from December 2022, in which I offered a number of ideas about ways to make the challenges of volunteerism just a little bit easier, especially with a number of ideas around more strategic board recruitment and engagement.
I also strongly encourage you to check out our recent launch of the Alaska Board Match website. This tool is specifically designed as a two-way website to encourage both those new to board service and those seeking new ways to serve on different boards and nonprofits who are looking for the right next person. I also encourage you to sign up for our new series on the board cycle of strategic recruitment-thoughtful engagement-graceful exit, or ask us for help directly. If we are going to fill all 50,000+ seats, we are going to have to think very differently in our board rooms about who we are recruiting, how we are helping them be successful, and how we create a win-win-win experience for mission, the individual volunteer, and Alaska.
We have some big work in front of us to celebrate the volunteers on our team now, to create more welcoming structures and systems so more people can feel like they belong in board and volunteer spaces, and provide more information to glean which tools and support are needed to move us forward to an Alaska where we all feel like we make a difference in the world every day.
Let’s do it together!
P.S. If you want to dive into the data, I have composed a list of both the cited research and also a few trusted peers at the national level who have provided their analysis. I hope you dive in.
Sources of data: