KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How 2 Valley nonprofits are trying to build up their volunteers after COVID, long-term decline

It’s the season of giving but fewer people are volunteering their time these days.

It used to be that volunteering was  a hallmark of American society, and it was something uniquely American. But, volunteering is on the decline in America. And, while the COVID-19 pandemic certainly made it harder, it’s actually part of a trend that  began more than a decade before

Why the decline? And how do organizations who need them get volunteers back into the fold?

For more on all of that, The Show sat down with two people who know a lot about it in our community: Josh Stine is the vice president of external affairs and business partnerships for Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley, and Jeanne-Marie Hill runs the AmeriCorps Seniors/RSVP Program for the Arizona State University Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation. 

Full interview

Why do people volunteer to begin with?

JEANNE-MARIE HILL: So I must say that one of the things, the strongest motivators I see in my volunteers is it, it comes from the heart. They want to give, they feel a need and, and a desire to give.

And it's interesting because my program even includes some benefits once in a while. They don't even want the benefits. They, seriously, they just, they just wanna give to another human being. They want the interaction.

That's interesting. So, it is sort of personal.

HILL: Very, very much so.

What about you, Josh? From your point of view? Why do people volunteer?

JOSH STINE: Yeah, I'd have to actually echo that. I think the volunteers we see coming into our clubs and working with our youth and our community, it's for the same reason, they want to get back. They might not know how they want to get back, but they know they want to.

So the real challenge is helping them identify, you know, what do they want to do? What brings fulfillment to them? Because if they're having fulfillment by working with the youth we serve, then the youth will have that as well.

Yeah, that's really interesting. OK. So volunteering used to be sort of a hallmark of America, but we have seen it decline. I wonder why you think that is. Do either of you have any ideas about, about that and have watched that happen a little bit?

HILL: Well, I might say that just the most recent interference of course, was COVID. I think that played a huge role and you know, it separated people. It scared people and especially coming from my senior group, they were kind of the most vulnerable. So it definitely made an impact.

STINE: I mean, I think we've seen two nowadays. It's, it's harder to volunteer. You know, there's, I'd say there's more hoops for volunteers to jump through from safety and security perspective, you know, you have to do background checks. There could be interviews involved, especially with us, working with youth.

So it's, it's letting people know that we're here to help you navigate through that, we want to make this as easy as possible. But there are some barriers you have to go through in order to volunteer on a regular basis. You know, we try to make it a little easier for one time volunteers there with kids. But for us, it's really ensuring there's that safety perspective and making people feel comfortable going through that process with us.

And then again COVID. COVID was huge for us. You know, we've definitely seen initially a downturn in not only individual volunteers but group volunteers because volunteers were worried about their own safety and, and unsure of, would it be safe for them to and work with kids with the COVID virus and, and now it's trying to regain those volunteers to re engage them and bring them back to the club.

Now, what was that like? Especially at the Boys & Girls Club during COVID, because so many kids whose parents were essential workers, right, who had to come. And I know Boys & Girls Club was really involved in giving those kids a place to go. But did you have enough volunteers to make it happen?

STINE: We actually did not have volunteers during COVID. We couldn't do it at all. And so we relied on our staff, on our staff, you know, we, we did not have volunteers in the building.

So from our perspective, now it's out there re-recruiting those volunteers and reengaging them and bringing them back into the fold from, from zero there.

Wow. Yeah. What about you, Jeanne-Marie? Like coming back from the pandemic, as you said, seniors are so vulnerable to COVID and, and probably were the most vulnerable group in a lot of ways at that time. Have you sort of had to start from, you know, ground zero to, to, to get people back involved and back out there in volunteering?

HILL: Yeah, I think to a certain extent, yes, I mean, there's been some new creative ways to volunteer. I have a new program that's completely remote and so it's, and it's very successful. It's supporting one of our initiatives which is reading and tutoring young children, elementary school age.

So I think that it's interesting how creative some of the different opportunities have become. Maybe some of them aren't as extensive, they're maybe shorter term, you know. So someone can come and, and feel good about volunteering maybe two hours a week instead of a traditional 15 or 20 hours a week, which is almost like a part time job.

STINE: That's interesting. And we went through the same process actually during COVID, but we did have some virtual volunteer opportunities, especially with our teenagers around workforce development and career path, which allowed us to expand some services in certain ways. But we also found out, you know, rather quickly that, that our teens and youth really wanted that personal interaction in a face to face. Like virtual was good as a supplement but not to replace the in-person volunteerism.

Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. Has it gotten harder to get people involved?

HILL: I'd say, well, overall, I'd say yes, it has. Of course, as we already mentioned, COVID, you know, played a big part in that. And, you know, it's interesting being out West. A lot of, a lot of my volunteers are snowbirds. So they come out here in October and work through May. So there's a dip in the summer. It's really a little bit challenging to find long term volunteers in the summer. But I think the the attitude is, is changing and that people are feeling more relaxed and I think it is moving in a direction of being easier to volunteer and people want to volunteer more. I think that those doors are opening slowly, how I, how I see it from my end.

STINE: Yeah, definitely. We, we've seen our group based volunteers come back, especially from the corporate setting. It's really getting those individual volunteers back now reengaging them and, and individuals finding an opportunity that meets their passion and bringing them into the fold because, you know, when we look at a day to day basis, our, our kids are really looking for those mentors, it can come from our staff, but a lot of times it comes from our volunteers and that volunteer ends up being the person that really makes that difference in a kid's life.

Yeah. Those are harder jobs, it sounds like. How do you find people to do that? Like where do you go and recruit there?

STINE: There's a lot of recruitment that goes involved. Obviously, there's recruitment at, you know, the college level, we look for college students, professionals, there's a lot of volunteer fairs, we work with other nonprofits that, you know, recruit volunteers of the AmeriCorps programs to provide opportunities for volunteers to come in.

A lot of times our corporate volunteers that come in, it could be, they could come in as a group that volunteers and, and they might really enjoy the event they had at the club and then it's retaining them and getting them to come back on a personal level by themselves to volunteer as well.

Have either of you done a lot of volunteering in your life?

STINE: Yeah, actually, I was fortunate enough as a high school junior and senior to volunteer as a big brother for Big Brothers, Big Sisters in our community. There was a program that allowed high school students to, become a big for a middle school student. And when I look back now, I mean, I feel like I got more out of that experience probably than my little brother. But I still have pictures today of him at my high school graduation and him being there when I graduated and I think that probably ultimately led me to the field I'm in, in working for the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Because statistics show that when youth and teens are given the opportunity to volunteer, they're more likely to volunteer as adults and have that sense of community that comes along with volunteering.

Yeah, I want to talk more about that idea of community in a moment, too. I wanted to ask you both about this, because I think one of the challenges I would guess at least in, in volunteering today and the reason maybe we're seeing a decline in it is, is sort of the disintegration of community, right? Like everything has moved online in a way. COVID was a big interruption to that. Our lives are busier. As you said, Josh, there's a lot of hoops to jump through, like no one wants to go get a background check, you know, that kind of stuff like seems, well, if you want me to do this, then I'm not going to volunteer that kind of thing. But it's also like, do you, do you feel like there's a, there's sort of a civics aspect of this, like a social responsibility aspect of this that has been lost in recent generations?

HILL: I think so. I mean, I guess one of the things and, and Josh brings up such a good point because you grew up having that experience and I think that's really important, especially in today's world, that children, that young children from elementary school on learn what it means to give to others.

I, I feel like that's just a cornerstone of you know, that life that maybe hasn't been, hasn't, I don't know, hasn't been front and center as much as it needs to be and we're seeing the result now.

So, yeah, I, I would like to think that our communities are strong enough and can get stronger again and that we incorporate some of those practices in our elementary schools and high schools. And so that children learn from an early on point what it means to give to another human being.

Yeah. There's like a fundamental aspect of that. What do you think, Josh?

STINE: Yeah. I mean, I think Arizona by nature, we have a lot of transplants. A lot of people that this isn't their home community, this is where they grew up and they still have a lot of affiliation to, you know, where they were born, where they were raised and it's trying to get, and it's trying to get them connected like this is now your home, this is now your community. So how do you give back and help build that for the future if they're going to be here?

We see a lot of our volunteers were former Boys & Girls Clubs kids, you know, and they may not be from, you know, Arizona, but they were Boys & Girls Club in another state. So they're thinking back to a memory they had when they were a child. So even though they're in Arizona, it's not where they're from, that's still a Boys & Girls Club in their community.

So it's really important to really redevelop that sense of community and, and we have to, fortunately we're in a place working with youth and teens that we can help develop that for them. And then it's extremely important moving forward. If we do want that next generation of volunteers, we have to make sure they feel that sense of community themselves and you can create that.

Yeah, Jeanne-Marie, I wanted to ask you this because you work with seniors, because you talked about like young kids getting involved in volunteering and that's one aspect of it that might be challenging for parents today. But what do you think about retirees getting involved in this? Like, do they have a sense of responsibility? What do you hear from folks about why they do this and what motivates them when they're done working to sort of be like, well, I should go and help now.

HILL: Absolutely. We laugh about it because I'm always like, saying to them, it seems like there's a change in our DNA when we hit a certain age. You know, we get to be maybe in the 50s ... and 60s and you start looking forward and even though there's a lot of, a lot of competition out there for how to spend time, I mean, and of course you think about living in Arizona and this beautiful weather of ours, people can play golf, people are healthy now, they can get out and play pickleball and golf until they're 80 years old or whatever.

But I think it's the, it's the whole essence of giving and maybe they've been on a very strict regimented, you know, 9 to 5 workplace thing and all of a sudden they have a lot of time. And it is interesting to me because I see it over, over again that just if I am speaking with a potential volunteer and we talk about why do they want to give? It's just they want to give, they want to be in touch, they want to improve their communities. They want a sense of community, you know, maybe they grew up in a different era where they did feel a closer community. And so they want to replicate that as best. They can, and volunteering is a way to do it.

Yeah. There's like a real, and this is proven in study after study, right. Like, there's physical, emotional, like all of these really tangible benefits for people who volunteer.

HILL: Absolutely. I know. I'm really into the blue zones. Right. And that one of the things that's directly associated is just a level of happiness that goes along with volunteering.

I want to ask you a couple of ethical questions about volunteering because I think often this time of year, it's the holidays we talk about giving, right? Giving back. But I think that often shows up in like writing a check, which is good in lots of ways and, and necessary for lots of organizations. What do you think the differences are? Why would you encourage someone to actually give back with their own time, their own body, their own mind, their own emotional state of well being?

HILL: I love this question. I really do because I've thought about it many, many times and a lot of, a lot of times I think they're equated and they're, and they're not, they're two very different things.

It's just the same way I look at, at two words throughout my life, which is happiness and fulfillment. They're two distinctive things. You, you can be happy but not fulfilled. But it feels that way to me with volunteering. I mean, it's, it's easy to write a check and well, for a lot of people who have the resources, it's obviously easy to write a check. It's a completely different feeling to sit with a young child and they're learning to read and you're spending that time versus dropping, you know, $10 into a Salvation Army bucket. And that's all great, too. I'm not trying to make it seem not.

But it's just the connection, I think. And the human connection that's not in the, necessarily in the charitable giving. I mean, sometimes people may say, well, heck, it's the end of the year I need, you know, I need some tax write off. I'm gonna write a check.

Sure, you can't tax write off your time, I guess.

HILL: Very different, very different things.

STINE: Yeah, I really look at it from the eyes of the youth we serve and our members, you know, our goal is to provide a meaningful opportunity and experience for our members. And obviously we need the donations, we need, we need the checks to come in to provide the service we provide. But when we talk to our members, they talk about the people in their lives. When they talk their experiences at the Boys & Girls Clubs, what they remember what has an impact on them are the adults that have come in through the club, whether it's a staff or more importantly, a volunteer. And a lot of times it is a volunteer that truly makes that long term impact, that helps transform their life and where they're gonna go, whether it's again an art teacher, a sports coach, that's what has the impact. And that's why it's important for people to understand, you know. Yes, we need all the donations in the world to keep operating, but we also need the human element. We, we need that personal interaction, and that not only benefits our kids, but it would be benefits them as a volunteer as well.

Last question for each of you. I wonder if there's any volunteer individual who sticks out in your mind? Any story? Anything that has surprised you in the work that you do where you've been like, really that person's here doing this and like, look at the impact they've made or something like that.

HILL: Yes, I would like to say, I had the joy of shadowing one of my volunteers out on the west side in Sun City. And she is a driver, provides transportation to those people in need who have lost their mobility with one for one reason or another. And I spent an entire day with her and it just amazed me and totally opened my eyes because she would, you know, go and pick up her, her client and drive them there and deliver them and put them in the wheelchair and take them out and all this.

And at the end of the day I said, oh my goodness, you, you've done this for a long time. She said, yeah, I've done it for like 12 years now. And I said, oh, my goodness. And she didn't even, she used her, paid for her own gas. She didn't get compensated in any way. And it was just amazing to me.

She said, well, most of these people can't take public transportation because there's no help from them, from their doorway to the actual bus or whatever it is. And she provided that. And she never mentioned that. I, I knew her for six years. She showed up at meetings. We talked about all different things. I had no idea. It was the, the depth of giving that she was doing so. Just amazing.


STINE: I, I think about a volunteer at our, our Robeson branch we have here in, in, in north Phoenix. Steve, he's a former American Express employee. He started volunteering, I believe about 12 years ago, when I was at the facility, he had just retired and he, he wants to come back and live in his community. And he wants to work with, with boys. He want to help mentor boys, talk about career and life, and we have a program we do through Boys & Girls Club that we gave him the book for.

He goes, OK, this is good, but this isn't enough. I, I want to do my own. And as he started doing his program with them, he come in once a week, you know, meet with the kids and they were always waiting for Mr. Steve and he'd always come in with pins for him or notebooks. At the end, we had a graduation. He came in and he brought ties for every young, every boy to wear an actual tie. And just to see the look on these faces of, of the boys that had their first tie and they're all around and they were all were in the school the next day to their teachers and their teachers are asking.

But what I find really neat is Mr. Steve is still volunteering there. The club's probably gone through four unit directors. They've gone through a lot of staff, but Mr. Steve now taught, you know, siblings that are now, you know, some are 25.

Now they, now they have a younger sibling who's 10, and he's still there teaching them and that connection he has with the community and when you go in and, and see the impact that's made on the young man and you know, some of them are in college have their first jobs and they'll talk about receiving their first tie from Mr. Steve.

What a legacy.

More stories from KJZZ

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.