CalNonprofits Articles

a bumble bee on a golden flower

Most of us have only recently begun to appreciate the crucial role bees play in pollinating nearly one-third of our food crops. And what a shame that it’s taken an international crisis of bee death to get us to finally pay attention.

In the nonprofit sector, volunteers are our bees. Contributing some 22 percent of all nonprofit hours worked, volunteers are often overlooked and even held in disdain by paid nonprofit staff. Particularly overlooked is the economic and social importance of all-volunteer organizations (AVOs) such as AA, youth sports leagues, PTAs, choirs, theaters, and local environmental justice groups.

If we take volunteerism for granted the way we have taken bees for granted, our nonprofit community — and the work we do — is surely in trouble.

Troubling signs

In California, volunteers donate the equivalent of 331,000 full-time jobs. And although hundreds of thousands of people stepped up to volunteer during the pandemic, volunteerism has been dealt some serious blows. Troubling signs include:

  • Nationally, volunteer rates have been in decline for 15 years
  • In California, despite some new efforts around volunteerism, two-thirds of volunteer centers have closed in the last decade, an indicator of decline in infrastructure and thought leadership in volunteerism
  • California has fallen to 47th from 34th among the states in volunteerism rates

Little attention is paid to volunteerism

Despite the importance of volunteers, there are shockingly few articles about them in nonprofit journals or news sites, or workshops addressing the issue. Foundations request information and data about nearly every aspect of a nonprofit’s work yet almost never about volunteers. And perhaps, as nonprofit staff have fought to be seen as professionals, we have become less enthusiastic about celebrating and championing volunteers.

This week – April 17-24 – is National Volunteer Week (update: April 16-22 in 2023). It arrives at a moment when, finally, there is a bill in Congress to amend a tiny but symbolic bit of discrimination against volunteers: volunteer mileage rates. Currently, if a lawyer drives 10 miles to see a client, she can take off 65.5 cents per mile as a business deduction, or $6.55. If the next day she drives 10 miles to volunteer as a lawyer for a nonprofit legal clinic, she can cite only $1.40 in deductible expenses, or .14 per mile.

The Tax Emergency Adjustment for Mileage Volunteers (TEAM Volunteers), introduced by U.S. Representatives Pete Stauber and Angie Craig of Minnesota, would mean that volunteers could deduct their volunteer-related mileage at the same rate as businesses do – as long as they are also transporting another person or property on behalf of the nonprofit. With these limitations and less than 10 percent of taxpayers itemizing on their tax returns, this benefit would not have broad impact. But it's still the right thing to do, and it's an important signal that a volunteer’s time has value too.

More policy work is needed

There is much more work to do in public policy related to volunteerism, including strengthening volunteer immunity laws and allowing all types of volunteer time to be included in audited financial statements.

And provocatively, Greg Baldwin of Volunteer Match poses this question: "If I take a bag full of old socks to Goodwill, I get a tax deduction. If I volunteer one day a week for a year at a preschool, hospice, or museum, I can't deduct even one cent. Is there something wrong with this picture?"

Just as the world is finally paying attention to bees, perhaps the (staffed) nonprofit and foundation world will recognize that it is as dependent on volunteers as our food supply is on bees!

– by Jan Masaoka, CEO, CalNonprofits

*   *   *

Action Steps

Here are two small things you can do this week to recognize the value of volunteers:

  • Instead of saying to volunteers, "Thank you for helping us!" Say "Thank you for helping our clients!" or "Thank you for helping our audience members!"
  • Instead of saying "We're small so we have to rely on volunteers," say "Because we have so many great volunteers, we're able to get a lot done with a small staff/with no paid staff!"

Add comment

Security code

get connected module titleSign up to receive our emails on member benefits, events & webinars, tips & tools, and legislation & policies that affect nonprofits.

go to Facebook page for CalNonprofits     go to Twitter page for CalNonprofits     go to LinkedIn page for CalNonprofits

Become a member

Join us at CalNonprofits. Strengthen the voice of nonprofits in California and receive benefits and cost savings on a range of programs and services.

Stay informed on nonprofits news in California. We'll send you information about events and webinars, tips & tools, and legislation impacting the nonprofit community.