Americans have been volunteering since 1736 when Benjamin Franklin began the first volunteer firefighting company. In the 1800s volunteerism was mainly done through religious and educational organizations. The American Red Cross and the United Way were started in this time frame. The 1900s brought about the many service organizations that continue to this day, such as the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club, and the Lions Club.
In 2011 volunteering reached its highest level since 2006, as Americans volunteered nearly 8 billion hours of their time to local and national causes. Nearly one in four Americans, an estimated 64.3 million people, have served as volunteers.
Among the Baby Boomers, volunteering was done almost subconsciously. Expected, and very well accepted. It has always been important to volunteerism that the volunteer feel needed, and that the work or ideas they contributed mattered. We’re taught that we should give with open hearts and not anticipate reciprocity, but this feeling of having made an impact or a difference is important in order for someone to continue volunteering and gain from it.
Many organizations benefit from volunteers. Some organizations consist solely of volunteers; some use volunteers to supplement the services and benefits they are able to offer. At Northern Montana Hospital (NMH), the Volunteer Auxiliary is known for providing the “Extras”. Gifts Shops, patient & resident visitation, coffee carts, information desks, newspaper delivery – these are just a few of those extras.
Yet since the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteerism has taken a severe hit in America. Among those organizations that have experienced a decrease, the impact has been significant, with most experiencing a decrease of more than 30% of their volunteer base. A full quarter (26%) of participating organizations lost more than 75% of their volunteers over the last two years.
For some volunteers, health concerns trumped their volunteering; the need to stay away from large groups of people in order to decrease their exposure risks. Another reason is fatigue. Volunteers in their late 70s and 80s may have been volunteering for over 20 years. The slow-down of daily life made them realize the fact that they are simply tired and wish to have more time at home.
While selecting your volunteer job usually followed retirement with the Boomers, Americans are now working longer and retiring later. Flex time and work-from-home jobs have made working less physically draining, which is important to older Americans. In 1991, the average retirement age was 57, and in 2022 it is 61.
Americans have also become more protective of their free time. Better health enables them to be more active. Children and grandchildren move away and need visiting. With a multitude of hobbies to choose from, folks are spending their retirement years differently.
So what does that mean for the future of volunteering? People are no longer ready to “write a blank check” with their available time. Committing to an organization can be seen as too restrictive, too time-consuming.
“We’ve gone from a group of over 60 volunteers to a smaller list of 15 or so that are active in our organization,” stated Elizabeth Lindbom, Volunteer Services Coordinator at NMH. “While those folks are amazing, we know we need to add to our roster to avoid burn-out. And adding more volunteers will help us to expand our services back to pre-COVID levels.”
But where will these folks come from? NMH is looking to address this issue by recruiting non-traditional volunteers: part-time retired people, moms with empty houses during school hours, college and high school kids needing volunteer hours, and local service groups. “Choosing to work with these non-traditional volunteers will give the flexibility and coverage that a facility like NMH requires,” said Ms. Lindbom.
The influx of energy from these newest volunteers is already apparent. Ms. Lindbom has recruited students from Montana State University-Northern, a neighboring facility to the hospital. One of our new volunteers is a retired teacher; another a retired nurse. The shifts have been reduced to 3 and 4 hours at a time, enabling people to still have the majority of their week available for other things.
“We’re willing to work together to discover the tasks and times that work for each individual,” added Ms. Lindbom. “We want to ensure that we are able to utilize volunteers for many years to come, so investing the time and energy to recruiting new folks is vital.”
Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a volunteer at NMH can find more information on their website, NMHCare.org. Or they can call 406-262-1330.