Why Volunteers Don’t Come Back

Nonprofits tend to see volunteers as necessary, but not strategic. Attitudes towards volunteerism are simplistic and out of date. The result? A loss of 1.9 billion hours of labor year to year. Corporate Volunteer programs can remedy all that.”I’m Bored… What’s on TV?”

Nonprofits tend to see volunteers as necessary, but not strategic. Attitudes towards volunteerism are simplistic and out of date. The result? A loss of 1.9 billion hours of labor year to year. Corporate Volunteer programs can remedy all that.


“I’m Bored… What’s on TV?”

You know that word association game? The one where you say the first word that comes to mind after a word is spoken to you? “Dog – Cat”, “Lightning – Storm”, “Love – Hate.” And so it goes. Eventually, it gets funny or profound or revealing.

Well, I’ve been playing the game all weekend and I’m going for revealing. The word? “Non-profit.” The winning response is usually something akin to, “charity” and after that it’s all about money. “Cash, Poor, Needy, Help” – you name it. We all seem to know that the organizations created to help people in need, are, in fact, in need themselves.


It’s an especially harsh reality in light of the fact that NPOs will lose almost $40 billion this coming year. That is the estimated dollar value of lost labor via volunteers. Studies show that over one-third of those who volunteered last year will not bother showing up this year. Why?

They would rather watch television.

No, seriously. They’ve done research:


Our research shows that the primary difference between volunteers and non-volunteers, when measuring what they do with their time, is the amount of television they watch. People who do not volunteer watch hundreds of hours of additional TV a year compared to people who do volunteer. It’s not that people don’t have enough time to volunteer. People do not volunteer because non-profits do not provide them with volunteer opportunities that interest them enough to pull them away from their television sets.”
(The New Volunteer Workforce; printed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, winter 2009)

Actually, it’s not all that surprising. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a good TV show now and then? But hundreds of hours on the couch makes a pretty sad statement about the condition of humanity when non-profits are losing billions for need of those hours. Of course… also makes a perfectly understandable statement. The quote above makes it clear – non-profits do not provide opportunities that are interesting enough.

And that’s not their only problem.


Most people are willing to do boring work if they feel genuinely needed. When we feel valued as human beings for the unique gifts we have to give, we’ll go to great lengths to “sacrifice ourselves” for the needs of others – no matter how boring. Even if it means giving up a little TV. We’ve all been there. A friend or a neighbor who loves us, needs us. So the couch sits empty (thank God for tevo) while we happily fill that need.

Unfortunately, non-profits (for the most part) do not provide this sense of value due to a poor job of managing people. Volunteers tend to feel more like a burden than an asset; more like an annoyance than a gift. The same article as quoted above offers the following observations why volunteers don’t come back:

  • Failing to Match Volunteer Skills with assignments.
  • Failing to Recognize Volunteer Contributions.
  • Failing to Measure the Value of volunteers.
  • Failing to Train and Invest in volunteers and staff.
  • Failing to Provide Strong Leadership.

(Read the full article here).


Give a few of my past entries a read-through for a more detailed discussion of, “How to Offer a Great Volunteer Experience.”

Business Needs to Volunteer Solutions

It would be easy to point fingers at our NPOs and demand that they change….that would be if my little word association game hadn’t revealed that we’re all aware that NPO’s lack resources. They just don’t have the ability to employ the full-time volunteer manager that they need. And even if they manage to hire that one position, they can rarely support it with a team. This is a terrible cycle. It propagates itself when it desperately tries to keep volunteers, continues to manage them badly, and loses them again and again to TV shows…all due to lack of resources.


While NPOs hands are virtually tied, business’ are capable of addressing the issues and breaking the cycle. Corporate volunteering programs are perfect opportunities to solve this problem for NPOs and give their own employees a sense of meaning and value through their volunteering roles. By utilizing the skill sets of their employees, businesses can:

  • Create Partnerships that achieve long term goals for both organizations – rather than short term or episodic events.
  • Ensure the Sustainability of NPO partners while at the same time achieving broad community impact that reaches beyond their own contributions.
  • Contribute to good volunteer management instead of leaving all of the heavy lifting to the NPO.
  • Offer Value to their own employees through roles that meet them at their highest level of contribution.

About the author

At Realized Worth, we help companies connect with their communities. We do this through corporate volunteering and social media