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Topic / Cities and Communities

The Volunteer Sector’s Looming Crisis

Last spring, I spoke to 2,000 Girl Guides at a rally in Vancouver on how, by being part of the organization, they will gain the skills to set ambitious goals, learn to lead, and feel welcomed by a supportive community. Even though it was an inspiring moment, I knew that the organization was facing a shortage of volunteers to deliver the program to these girls. That shortage has stranded 1,200 girls on waiting lists in British Columbia alone, and, at Canada’s national level, 4,500 girls have been left on the outside looking in.1

Here, in the US, this is not just a problem for cookie-selling girls. The reality is that volunteer-driven organizations play vital roles in building great communities, with a 2021 US Census Bureau report estimating that in America alone volunteers contributed 4.1 billion hours of unpaid work, equal to $122.9 billion in economic value.2 The Bureau also found the pandemic accelerated the decline in volunteering from 30% to 23% of Americans over the age of 16.3 Fortune magazine called the trend a “wake-up call” that strains the safety net that nonprofits provide to society’s most vulnerable.4

Volunteers aren’t just supporting our most vulnerable, they are also the ones making cultural events, community spaces, and children’s after-school activities possible. The non-profit sector has no money to replace volunteers with paid staff, meaning that programs simply don’t survive if volunteers can’t be found. This is especially concerning at a time when inflation and the rising cost of living is increasing the demand for services provided by these organizations.

This shortage is already hitting communities in a range of sectors. NPR reports that two-thirds of the country’s firefighters are volunteers and the plunging rate of young people willing to take on the role “could be a life-or-death issue.”5 Little Leagues across America can’t find enough umpires to call games.6 Assistance Dogs International has over 9,000 clients on waiting lists for a service animal because of a shortage of volunteers to train dogs.7

The non-profit sector is well aware of the threat decreasing volunteer rates pose to their organizations. Close to half of the U.S. non-profit CEOs reported that recruiting volunteers is one of their most significant challenges and organizations across the country are running campaigns to recruit people to support their cause.8

However, solving the volunteer problem isn’t as simple as appealing to more people’s generosity and desire to contribute to their community. Even pitching people on the many benefits of volunteering — creating a sense of purpose, developing new skills and leadership abilities, making new friends and improving mental health — has not countered the decline in participation.

It isn’t laziness or a lack of interest that is causing a decline in volunteerism. Shifting societal trends are making it more challenging for individuals to get involved in their community. The rising cost of living is forcing many Americans to pick up additional jobs to make ends meet which reduces the amount of time they have to volunteer in their communities.9 This is also causing Millennials and Gen Z to delay starting families — impacting volunteer rates because parents are more likely to volunteer in their communities.10 In 2021, 30% of parents were active volunteers compared to 21% of individuals without children.11 Additionally, religious institutions — which connect their members with opportunities to serve their communities — continue to see declining membership. In 2019, 26% of Americans reported they were “not affiliated” with any religion — a trend that has been increasing for decades.12

In the absence of non-profits that can deliver these services, there will be increasing pressure on governments to pick up the slack as shown by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to compensate volunteer firefighters and the need for the Canadian city of Ottawa to pay hundreds of employees to remove flood barriers after a call for volunteers fell flat.13, 14 Governments need to get creative and make it easier for people to volunteer.

One solution is to financially reward individuals who serve their community. A tax deduction — similar to those given for monetary or in-kind charitable donations — would recognize the value of the time donated by volunteers and make volunteering accessible to community members constrained by their financial situations. Further, an initiative like this would paint a more accurate picture of the contribution volunteers make to communities. Tax deductions are already used in Canada as an incentive to recruit volunteer wildfire crews and France allows companies to claim deductions for the value of in-kind donations of staff time to non-profits.15, 16

The quiet impact of the voluntary sector on our daily lives is too often drowned out by noisy debates over the performance of the public and private sectors. Listening closer to the growing cries for help from nonprofit organizations is essential to reversing the loss of energy and time that volunteers contribute to the mission of supporting and strengthening our communities.

  1. “BC Girl Guides Facing Shortage of Volunteers,” CTV News Vancouver, September 2023, ↩︎
  2. Erin Schneider and Tim J. Marshall, “Volunteering in America: New U.S. Census Bureau, AmeriCorps Research,”, January 25, 2023, ↩︎
  3. “Volunteering and Civic Life in America,” AmeriCorps, November 23, 2022, ↩︎
  4. Thalia Beaty, Glenn Gamboa, and the Associated Press, “Volunteering Have Been Declining for Decades but the Pandemic and Economic Struggles Made It a Lot Worse: ‘This Is a Wake-up Call,'” Fortune, April 17, 2023, Thalia Beaty and Glenn Gamboa, “A Decline in Volunteers Worries Non Profits | Fortune,”, accessed March 9, 2024, ↩︎
  5. Adam Bearne, “Volunteer Firefighters Are Getting Older. It Could Be a Life-or-Death Issue,” NPR, June 13, 2023, ↩︎
  6. Sydney Moore, “Little League Baseball Teams Need Umpires in the Triad,”, May 26, 2023, ↩︎
  7. Sarah Motter, “Volunteers Needed: Service Dog Agencies Search for Volunteers Among Shortage,” WIBW, August 7, 2023, ↩︎
  8. Nathan Dietz and Robert T. Grimm Jr., “The State of Volunteer Engagement: Insights from Nonprofit Leaders and Funders,” the Do Good Institute, February 2023, ↩︎
  9. Joyce Philippe, “High Inflation Pushes Half of American Workers to Consider Second Jobs,” ABC News, October 26, 2022, ↩︎
  10. Alice Gibbs, “Gen Z and Millennials Put Off Having Children for the Same Reason,” Newsweek, October 25, 2023, ↩︎
  11. “Demographics,” AmeriCorps, accessed March 9, 2024, ↩︎
  12. Pew Research, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, October 17, 2019, ↩︎
  13. Robert Harding, “How Gov. Kathy Hochul Wants to Address NY Volunteer Firefighter Shortage,” The Citizen, January 16, 2023, ↩︎
  14. CBC News, “City Staff to Remove Sandbags after Call for Volunteers Falls Flat,” CBC News, June 6, 2019, ↩︎
  15. Richard Raycraft, “NDP, Fire Chiefs Urge Government to Boost Volunteer Firefighter Tax Credit,” CBC News, June 21, 2023, ↩︎
  16. Stephanie Robertson and Chris Jarvis, “It’s Time We Recognize the Full Value of Volunteering. A Simple Change to the Tax Code Could Help,” CBC News, December 27, 2021, ↩︎