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Volunteer organizations across Colorado are seeing a big drop in people willing to help

Posted at 2:20 PM, Nov 24, 2022

DENVER — Organizations around the state and across the country are experiencing a decline in the number of volunteers signing up to help with their mission.

The drop has caused groups to scramble to figure out how to provide the same services with less help. Needs have also increased greatly for many organizations in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Volunteers of America

At Volunteers of America, everyday — snow or shine — there is a routine. Volunteers spread out across the state to deliver meals to those who need a helping hand. The meals are meant to be supplemental nutrition but often times the food is much more than that.

“We all know that some of these people are relying on that meal to eat that day and if that doesn't get there, then there's no middle,” said Jon Ewing, the communications manager for VOA.

Unlike a one-time volunteer effort, the Meals on Wheels operation relies on people who are consistently willing to take a couple hours out of their day to drive from home to home delivering food.

The organization also doesn’t cover things like gas, and with prices still high, the cost adds to the burden of volunteers.

Like a lot of other charitable groups, VOA has seen a sharp decrease in people willing to sign up to help. Currently, it’s down roughly half of the volunteers it relied on pre-pandemic.

While monetary donations have been consistent, money only goes so far. Without people willing to step in to help, money can only do so much. Even with a smaller staff, however, Ewing says VOA is adamant about continuing its mission.

“We don't scale back. It just means that we put more onus on our volunteers and our staff to get those meals out. But the fact of the matter is that sometimes it just doesn't work,” he said.

One possible factor for the drop in volunteers: The COVID-19 pandemic itself. Many of the helpers are older, so Ewing says the possibility of contracting SARS-CoV-2 has caused some to stay home and minimize contact with others for the sake of their own health and safety.

Other volunteers might also call out sick from their route occasionally, leaving the program scrambling to find a backup to deliver the meals.

“If you can't find someone to get that food there, that person doesn't get that meal that day,” Ewing said.

However, COVID-19 has also compounded the problem. The need has also increased with more and more families looking for nutritional assistance.

Between fewer volunteers and more need, burnout has also become a big factor for those who choose to stay.

The organization has done what it can to try to recruit new faces to join its ranks. It has sent out an email blast and even made recruitment videos, which generated a big response.

“Of that big response, we got about 100 emails from people who said, 'We'd love to volunteer.' Well, of those 100, only 34 actually turned in applications, and of those 34, about half of those actually signed on to be volunteers. So that's 15, and in that time, we lost around 15 volunteers,” Ewing said.

Nevertheless, the organization will keep finding ways to deliver meals to those in need, knowing that for some seniors, the volunteer who shows up at their door may be their only human connection for the day.

Ewing hopes, more people will consider signing up to help with the program.

Colorado volunteer organizations see drop in people willing to help

Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District

Over at the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District, between a warming climate and an overgrown forest, the stakes are high. Last year’s Marshall Fire put a new emphasis on fire protection districts and the fact that fire dangers are now year-round.

For decades, many smaller, mountainous or rural fire districts have relied on volunteers to staff their stations.

The job is not for the faint-hearted and is time-consuming; it requires 200 hours of training before a volunteer can even sign up for their first shift. After that, the department asks volunteers to respond to a minimum of 15% of the calls it receives.

“Sometimes the emotional trauma can be very challenging for many people. We ask a lot of them, and we're placing them in very challenging, and sometimes risky situations,” Halstead said.

That adds up to between one and two calls per week. Some are quick medical responses that may require a couple of hours of the volunteer’s time. Fire responses, however, can last 12 or 20 hours depending on the severity of the situation.

“People have less time to commit to the volunteer fire service. And the demands for that time have increased significantly over the past 30 years,” Halstead said.

Over the past three decades, these fire departments across the country have experienced a loss of about one-third of their volunteers on average.

Halstead partially blames that on the increasing home values in the area, making it more difficult for younger couples who might be willing to volunteer and work the long hours to step up.

As a result, the age of many of the volunteers in increasing in this demanding job. Along with the ages of the volunteers, the age of people living in the area is also going up, increasing demand on the department with more medical emergencies.

“That call volume increasing by almost 100% means that we're adding that strain on our volunteers on a day-to-day basis,” Halstead said.

The department has added more career staff, but with a tight budget, it still needs volunteers to be considered fully staffed.

Because the fires dangers never stop, Inter-Canyon and two other fire districts have come up with a potential solution. Inter-Canyon, North fork and Elk Creek recently launched a survey to ask residents if they would be open to allowing the three districts to consolidate into one Jefferson County fire district.

The benefit would mean that the three districts would be able to better share resources like volunteers and potentially hire more career firefighters.

However, the downside is the consolidation would create a very large fire protection district of about 400 square miles in all.

In the end, Halstead says, there’s no easy solution to the decline in volunteerism, but this could help these fire districts survive in the meantime.

Erie Police Department

It’s not only fire departments that are struggling with long-term volunteers to sign up for a difficult position, though.

The Erie Police Department is also having a difficult time recruiting volunteer victim service advocates to assist their officers.

These volunteers work as a liaison alongside the officers and detectives to provide support to victims of crime. They offer crisis intervention, emotional support and referrals and resources to local agencies to provide ongoing support.

The advocates also help notify the victims of their rights throughout the criminal justice process.

“It's a comprehensive service for providing direct services to people and possibly one of the worst days of their lives,” said Valerie Greenfield, the victim services and restorative justice programs manager for the police department. “We're there to offer a listening ear.”

Greenfield was hired about a year ago to help build up the program within the Erie Police Department and recruit more volunteers.

She’s asking for a one-year commitment from anyone who steps up to help. However, the agency also requires would-be volunteers to go through a background check and reference checks as well as go through a 60-hour training course.

The job is also emotionally draining; Greenfield says some volunteers quit after their first day out in the field.

“Sometimes people get to the finish line of academy and say, ‘You know what, this may not be for me,’ and that is completely okay,” she said.

In her previous position, Greenfield says she would get multiple applications over the course of weeks for the position. Now, she’s lucky if she even gets a few people to volunteer. She blames the COVID-19 pandemic for causing people to reassess their priorities and how they use their time.

Like Inter-Canyon, the age of the volunteers with Erie Police is also increasing significantly and many are retiring from the program.

She’s now working on her own social media campaign to ask new recruits to step up, saying people never know when they will need a service like this until they are put into an unimaginable situation themselves.

“Tragedy doesn't discriminate and one thing that I've learned in doing this work is, no one is immune to it,” Greenfield said. “If it were me, I'd want somebody there just for me to talk with me, to help me understand who's here, why are they here and what can I do moving forward.”

Where are all of the volunteers?

All around Colorado and across the country, nonprofits suffered at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. David Bechtold, an associate professor in the department of management at Metro State University of Denver, estimates that the pandemic caused 11% of all nonprofits to close and 65% to reduce their services.

Despite this, volunteerism is an important part of the American way of life.

“Volunteerism has been a hallmark of our country,” Bechtold said. “It's an important component in creating a healthy community. When it is not there, communities suffer.”

With baby boomers, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept some home fearing for their health and safety, but also the economic stress that inflation is causing across the state.

“2008 was at the low point of a volunteering. Right now, we're very close to that same low point,” Bechtold said.

Interestingly, he has noticed an increase in the number of people willing to volunteer to do work remotely, which might work for some organizations but won’t work in a food bank or a fire department.

Another potential factor in the decline in volunteerism: Partisanship.

“It's not necessarily impossible to think that some of this partisanship, that is breaking communities apart may be a part of the decline, as well,” he said.

Just because people might not be as willing to volunteer their time, that doesn’t mean the giving spirit has gone away, though. Bechtold has noticed an increase in financial donations to these organizations.

Despite the decline, Bechtold is optimistic about the future and believes volunteerism will return to its pre-pandemic levels once again.

He reminds people that the selfless act also offers mental health benefits for the people who participate.

“It's not all altruistic, when you volunteer, you get a tremendous amount of benefit to you,” he said.

For now, organizations across the state will continue their recruitment efforts, hoping more volunteers will choose to step up.