This story is part of TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long series that will track how and where the region’s government, philanthropic, civic and private sector is working toward a more just recovery.
Thomas Henry Massaro, the city’s former deputy mayor of economic development, is well known for his holiday specialty — Ravioli Italiani con mozzarella fresca al forno — that he cooks and delivers to residents in about five city shelters during the Thanksgiving holiday. Over the years, more people have turned out to help him allowing the annual feast to grow.
But not this year.
“Volunteers have great apprehension about going into shelters,” Massaro said adding it was extremely challenging to manage it all this year without his usual army of helpers at a time “when many more homeless, unemployed and (the) perniciously addicted need to be fed well and with a radiant smile.”
When COVID-19 hit, hidden in the steady stream of dire public health news was the fact that volunteerism was flatlining. Afraid of getting sick, millions stopped volunteering sending the numbers of people helping into freefall at the time it was needed the most. A March 2020 survey from VolunteerMatch showed that 9 out of 10 nonprofits were reporting heavy volunteer loses with 85% of volunteers citing fear of getting the sick as their primary reason for pausing their activism work.
This widespread drop in the numbers of volunteers has also impacted the entire Greater Philadelphia ten county area. In June, the Mayor’s Policy Office issued a report entitled the Impact of Covid 19 on Nonprofits in the Greater Philadelphia Region by Counties Served. The city’s study showed that in the pandemic’s early days, 35 to 50 percent of nonprofits saw their volunteer workforce essentially evaporate.
“We heard that many organizations that rely on volunteers have been impacted significantly. Volunteers tend to be older, and so with older adults taking more precautions to socially distance, local nonprofits reported a significant decline in volunteerism,” recalled Emma Hertz, HealthSpark Foundation’s director of external affairs reporting on conversations the foundation held with their partners.
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Marissa Christie, president & CEO of the United Way of Bucks County described those early days. “We have more than one program that relies heavily on volunteers. We’ve needed to make big shifts. First, every program possible was immediately converted to contact-free service. We have extended our hours so that we can spread out our volunteers. Needless to say, we require everyone — staff or volunteer — to follow our rigorous health and safety protocols. Our team members workdays, evenings, and weekends to serve our community — and to ensure that we can engage volunteers with adequate social distancing. It is a necessity right now.”
Most nonprofit agencies, many operating on shoestring budgets and limited paid staff, couldn’t exist without the labor of volunteer workers and expertise of volunteer boards of directors. In addition to their time, volunteers are generous with their money — donating at twice the rate as non-volunteers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 62 million people are active volunteers but when the Corporation for National and Community Service accounted for an informal volunteer force — those who directly help another neighbor, for example — that number shoots up by about 15 million, to 77.4 million people. The average volunteer gives 52 hours per year of servic,e and the value of a volunteer hour is now estimated to be $27.20 according to the Independent Sector and the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute. This is increase of 7% from 2019 and adds up to an annual contribution of $187.7 billion.
According to the Nonprofit Source, food collection or distribution, fundraising or selling items to raise money, general labor or transportation, and tutoring and teaching are the top activities for volunteers. Religious, educational, social service and health organizations are their top organizational types.
When the Corporation for National and Community Service took a closer look at the Greater Philadelphia area including northern Delaware, they reported that 33.5% of residents volunteer, ranking the area 17th among cities for volunteer service worth of about $3.9 billion.
However, according to the Do Good Institute, volunteering is trending downward.
“Fewer Americans are engaging in their community by volunteering and giving than in any time in the last two decades,” the report, America’s Volunteers? A Look at America’s Widespread Decline in Volunteerism in City and States stated. There is also evidence that this trend in pronounced in places that have traditionally had a strong volunteer ethic.
The city’s report was optimistic about a post-pandemic volunteer recovery. During the summer, most nonprofits believed that by the end of the year their volunteer force would have come back. But that optimism couldn’t have foreseen a second surge that has had deadly consequences across the country and is forcing another wave of restrictions.
One answer has been to increase remote opportunities for volunteers. Kristen Rotz, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, said “United Ways across the state have been adapting to provide remote volunteer opportunities, but many volunteers also continue to choose traditional, in-person activities with social distancing, like packing food boxes for food banks, or helping to sort donations and deliver meals to seniors,” Rotz explained
“Examples of remote volunteering include making cards for seniors, assembling kits to support workers who are starting new jobs, and assembling supplies to help people in need with cold weather gear,“ she added.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t include making ravoli.-30-
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