Friday, July 12, 2024

This semester last year, Microsoft engineer Flavio Andrade would leave his office a bit early, once a week, to volunteer at an afterschool program, Innovators for Purpose. Why? In his words, “I wanted to give back. The feeling I get from doing this more than justifies the commitment.” His own life had been transformed radically by a tech-focused mentoring program more than a decade ago.

The program, called iFp, matched Flavio and a Google volunteer with three students who were tasked with developing an inspirational “Genius Website” for their peers, from scratch. The students had to learn about high-level website structure and several programming languages. They did! The site is nearly ready to launch.

In Cambridge, more than 175 local organizations rely on thousands of volunteers to make amazing things like this happen every day. Recruiting volunteers is always a scramble, but since the pandemic, one type of volunteer – the regular, in-person variety – has become an endangered species. We know why: Covid’s social distancing accelerated trends toward remote everything. Many corporate employees are rarely at the office. Health risks pushed a stable group of regular volunteers – retirees – to quit, en masse. Other people lost touch with their nonprofits when programming was paused. There was a cultural shift; it seems that nobody wanted to make a commitment anymore.

As we lost volunteers, demand for nonprofit services increased. With significant post-Covid staffing shortages and funding cutbacks, agencies had less capacity to recruit and retain volunteers, a situation that continues to this day. Need is up, availability, down.

My agency, Cambridge Volunteers, compared volunteer recruitment among local nonprofits pre- vs. post-pandemic (2019 vs. 2022). We found that the lack of regular, committed volunteers hit youth services especially hard. One organization that engaged 800 weekly tutor-mentors in 2019 found only 650 in 2022. Another recruited 96 volunteers for 150 students, so they experimented with group mentoring, which proved less effective than 1:1. This year the pressure is worse: 250 students and 70 mentors. Another program said they “have all but given up” because they could not recruit even three software engineers – in Cambridge, one of the Stem capitals of the world! I could go on.

We collaborated on another survey in 2023 with Cambridge School Volunteers and Tutoring Plus to explore what mentees want from mentors. A top need: “Someone who understands who I am,” which requires time spent together. The worst thing: mentors who don’t show up.

It’s not just tutors and mentors. There are hundreds more opportunities for sustained volunteerism in other agencies that support immigrants, seniors, the arts and more. Volunteering once or when inspiration strikes is a marvelous option that some organizations are able to offer. But a dozen one-time volunteers provide less value than one 12-week volunteer. Regular returners build trust with all participants, including other volunteers and program staff. A close-knit team is more efficient and effective. Returners reduce the program’s recruitment and training burdens.

As Flavio knew from his own teen years, “Tech insiders who build meaningful relationships with youth from underrepresented demographics are critical. Programs like iFp could change many more lives if we just had more volunteers.”

Flavio’s satisfaction from his sustained volunteering mirrors that of innumerable people I have been honored to meet through my work. They organize clothing, distribute food, befriend seniors, interpret during legal interviews, post social media and support others to have confidence in their own potential. They look forward to each weekly session, to their partners and colleagues, to the opportunity to learn firsthand about a complex community challenge, and they value the self-learning that comes from getting outside of one’s bubble.

You can be sure that any organization facing recruitment challenges has explored and is continuing to explore ways to tweak their programs and recruit more volunteers. Examples abound where flexible scheduling, remote alternatives and other changes have increased recruitment, and where those same options diluted impact or triggered new challenges. Generally speaking, when trust and deeper relationships are of utmost importance, no good substitute has been found for the “endangered species.”

Here’s a challenge – and a chance – for you. Consider what you could gain in addition to what you would actually be giving as a regular, in-person volunteer for just one season, making a weekly or alternating-week commitment. I guarantee that you will not regret investing that time in our community and in yourself. In fact, you might find that you want to do it again. Undoubtedly, there will be more tweaking and innovation in the world of volunteering. Meanwhile, our neighbors are waiting. Our time to work together is now.

Laurie Rothstein


The write is executive director of Cambridge Volunteers.