Volunteers Swarm to Help Seattle-Area Nonprofits
Seattle, March 13, 2009, Puget Sound Business Journal — Call it job-search therapy, skills development or simply community assistance. No matter how it’s labeled, local volunteerism is way up.
Volunteers are streaming into Seattle-area nonprofit groups, filling a variety of tasks from basic labor to pro bono professional work.
A central source of current volunteer data was not readily available. But the central Puget Sound offices of various nonprofit organizations say the number of volunteers they manage has increased between 43 percent and 85 percent in the last year.
Organizations attribute the surge in volunteering to a number of factors, including rising unemployment, stark social needs, a call to volunteerism by political leaders and the attractiveness of donating time rather than money during the recession.
But a common observation among nonprofits is that laid-off workers are also volunteering to network and keep their skills sharp. For some, volunteering also works as a type of job-search therapy.
“When you are out looking, you can get demoralized,” said Bill Budo, a former vice president of project management at Safeco, who was laid off in December after Liberty Mutual Group acquired the company. “You have got to look for outlets that you can control.”
After Budo was let go, his wife helped connect him with the Seattle office of the Taproot Foundation, a national group that matches skilled volunteers to nonprofit groups. He made a six-month commitment to the Eastside Domestic Violence Program and now manages a team of volunteers that is rebuilding the group’s website.
April Kelly, program manager at Taproot’s Seattle office, says the number of applications to her office climbed 68 percent in January to 129 people, compared with the same month in 2008. In January, San Francisco-based Taproot saw a 71 percent increase in volunteers nationwide, to more than 1,000.
Increasingly, local volunteers are coming from the ranks of the unemployed. “The last orientation I had, about 75 percent of the room said that they had been laid off,” Kelly said.
Janice Williams, owner of JW Coaching, which advises adults typically age 50 and older on connecting with new volunteer and work opportunities, says she often recommends volunteerism to unemployed people because of the networking and skills it can provide.
But there are other reasons why the unemployed should consider volunteering, she said.
“It can be really isolating to do a job search. Volunteering gives a sense of fulfillment from contributing,” Williams said. “The therapeutic part is one that people don’t often talk about.”
Volunteers seem to be seizing on a broad variety of tasks. The Boys & Girls Club of King County, for example, often uses volunteers to serve as youth mentors. Last year, the group saw its volunteers increase 43 percent to 3,610.
At the United Way of King County, the largest volunteer coordinator in the area, people are pouring through the door. In January, the number of volunteers it helped connect with a nonprofit group climbed 85 percent to nearly 1,500. Last year, the agency reported a 41 percent increase in its volunteer ranks.
Liahann Bannerman, director of the volunteer center at the United Way, said volunteering could be a boost for workers turned job seekers.
“It can be really helpful to folks who are currently trying to get back into the work force,” she said.
While nonprofit groups welcome the surge in volunteering, some are wary that it will be short-lived. They also wonder whether nonprofits can accommodate all the volunteers who want to help.
“It is hard to create the kinds of volunteer opportunities more and more people want,” Bannerman said.
In January, Seattle Works had 350 new volunteer registrations, up nearly 70 percent from January 2008. “We certainly are seeing a remarkable increase,” said Alison Carl White, executive director of Seattle Works, a group that encourages professionals in their 20s and 30s to perform community work.
As layoffs mount and calls for personal service increase, experts say they expect the surge in volunteering to continue.
Taproot volunteer Budo said his wife, Anne Marie, is also a Taproot volunteer and also recently lost her job. Working with Taproot has given them both some fulfillment and a little hope during their job search.
“You meet different people,” Budo said. “One of those people could be a connector to a job opportunity.”