The Economic Downturn—Good for Volunteers, But is it Good for Job Seekers, Too?

This post appeared on September 17th, 2009 as a part of the Career Corner Advice Series


A recent study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies found that increased volunteer support has made it possible for many nonprofits to maintain or increase the number of people they serve. My colleague Amy Potthast recently posted a great overview of this study as well as some other research on volunteer support during recent tough economic times. Check out her post on The New Service Blog for more.

The numbers that popped out to me when I read the Johns Hopkins report were: 80%-90% responding organizations reported maintaining or increasing their use of volunteers through increasing the number of volunteer hours (84%), maintaining or increasing the sheer number of volunteers (88%), maintaining or increasing the capacity to recruit volunteers (83%), or increases in volunteer contributions (83%).

These numbers got stuck together in my head with some recent data that I saw in the Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey. The report shows that there is a 20% decrease in organizations that intend to create new full-time positions and an 18% increase in organizations that intend to downsize or layoff staff.

So, how does this all relate?

The work of nonprofits still needs to be done even if you don’t see an abundance of nonprofit job openings. The truly unique inroad to nonprofit work is this middle area highlighted by these reports: a reliance on volunteers to continue pieces of a nonprofit’s mission that would otherwise go neglected due to constrains on staff time, size, and resources.It isn’t that volunteers are replacing paid nonprofit staff, it is more that nonprofit staff see volunteers as a vital piece of the work they do, the projects they coordinate, and the outreach they aspire to. Sometimes an organization has no choice but to break up some of the responsibilities that would otherwise be covered by a position currently iced by a hiring freeze and find talented people to help move pieces of these projects forward.

A very common thread throughout our Career Corner series is getting out there and getting involved in intentional ways. We never say to volunteer in order to get a job; rather, volunteer to get out there and get involved. Do what you love and what you love will come back to you…sometimes through paid employment.

So, given that the employment trends show a tightening of paid positions and the volunteerism data shows a stronger reliance on donated time and talent, ask yourself this question:

When nonprofits start being able to hire again, would you rather be on the radar as a dedicated, reliable volunteer during tough, belt-tightening economic times or a cold resume arriving in a hiring manager’s inbox at the first hints of sunnier fiscal horizons?

Then ask yourself: If you were that hiring manager, whose resume would you spend more time with? (Here’s a hint for you: What Nonprofit HR Wants.)

Posted by Steven Joiner, Director of the Career Transitions Program and author of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector Switchers. He thinks that the numbers—some indicating growth in volunteerism, some indicating shrinking employment options—pave the road to a golden land of opportunities.

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