Crises highlight need for volunteer management

Americans have earned a reputation worldwide for generously donating money, supplies and volunteer time when tragedy strikes. High-profile disasters also highlight an urgent concern of the nonprofit community: the need for improved management of volunteers.

 Here’s why:

  • The huge rush of volunteers after a crisis often doesn’t translate into effective help. FEMA helped sponsor a 2002 study “Preventing a Disaster Within the Disaster: The Effective Use and Management of Unaffiliated Volunteers.”
  • Social needs are growing in America but volunteerism is not. Studies show one reason is that people don’t feel that their time and talents are used effectively when they do volunteer.
  • Specialized university centers, nonprofit foundations and religious organizations have all stepped up effects to improve volunteer management in hopes of inspiring more volunteerism. Less than a third of Americans did volunteer work in 2012, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Youth and religious communities are receiving special attention. Studies show that people who volunteer in their youth are much more likely to volunteer as an adult and that religious people are more likely to volunteer than those with no affiliation to a religious group.

Why it matters

With local, state and federal budgets tightening on many social services, more and more organizations are looking to volunteers to help them meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society – the young, the elderly, the poor and the sick. In times of crisis, volunteers are essential to the task of caring for victims.

Angles for reporters

  •  How are secular and religious groups promoting volunteerism after tragedies? How will they try to sustain those volunteer efforts?
  • Survey volunteerism in your state and community. Which groups say volunteerism is lagging, and which are attracting new volunteer energy? Who is volunteering, by age, gender, ethnicity?
  • How are volunteers matched with tasks, and how are they managed and trained? Do organizations have one person in charge of managing volunteers?
  • What reasons do people give for volunteering, and what are its benefits? Do they place the responsibility for being effective on themselves or on the organizations they volunteer for?


General studies

State by state

Youth and teens

  • “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes towards Politics and Public Service”

    “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes towards Politics and Public Service,”  a 2012 study from Harvard University Institute of Politics, asked Americans ages 18 to 29 about their opinions regarding politics and public service.

  • “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era”

    This 2004 survey of almost 1,400 youth ages 18 to 25 that included Christian, Muslim, Jewish youth and a mix of races and ethnicities – explored attitudes about faith, politics and volunteer service. It found a “strong and intimate” connection between religious faith and volunteerism. 56 percent of those surveyed volunteered in their community in the previous year, but only 14 percent did so regularly. The survey was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

  • Youth With a Mission

    Youth With a Mission is one of the largest interdenominational and international Christian ministries, with about 12,000 volunteer staff (and thousands more affiliated workers) based in over 800 locations in over 135 countries. The organization works to get youth involved in missions.

Older Americans


  • “Companies That Care”

    Read “Companies That Care,” a Forbes magazine article about companies that encourage volunteerism and philanthropy among their employees.

Other resources

National sources

  • Pamela J. Sybert

    Pamela J. Sybert is director of the Educational Consortium for Volunteerism at the University of North Texas in Denton. The consortium’s mission is to enhance professional volunteer management and to foster more effective volunteerism through university support.

  • Sarah Jane Rehnborg

    Sarah Jane Rehnborg is interim director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. The center seeks to build a more caring society through initiatives in philanthropy and volunteerism.

  • Marcy Fink Campos

    Marcy Fink Campos is director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service at American University in Washington, D.C. The center supports student volunteerism that ranges from structured one-day projects to multi-year initiatives that lead to the development of independent nonprofit organizations.

  • James M. Ferris

    James M. Ferris is director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The center provides research on philanthropy, volunteerism and the nonprofit sector.

  • Dr. Harold Koenig

    Dr. Harold Koenig is a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health. He wrote the white paper for the Department of Health and Human Services on faith-based responses to natural disasters and terrorism.

  • Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network

    The Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network mobilizes millions of volunteers to help solve social problems in thousands of communities. Contact Leona Hiraokavice president of communications.

  • Roger Nozaki

    Roger Nozaki is associate dean of the college and director of the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University in Providence, R.I. The center develops programs to strengthen leadership skills and provide direct service; connect community-based work with learning; and build partnerships with local, national and international communities.

  • Nancy Macduff

    Nancy Macduff is a volunteer trainer, manager and author who publishes the online newsletter Volunteer Today.  She’s based in Walla Walla, Wash.

  • Susan J. Ellis

    Susan J. Ellis is the editor-in-chief of E-Volunteerism, a quarterly online journal that focuses on effective volunteer management. Contact Ellis in Philadelphia, Pa.

  • Church of God in Christ

    The Church of God in Christ is the largest organization in the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition in the United States. Its members are predominately African-American.

    Contact: 901-947-9300.
  • Union for Reform Judaism

    The Union for Reform Judaism claims 1.5 million individual members in more than 900 synagogues. It maintains a directory of congregations and a directory of summer camps. Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president.

  • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

    The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is the world’s largest humanitarian organization.

    Contact: 212-338 0161, +41 22 730 42 22.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Bryan Stone

    Bryan Stone serves as associate dean for academic affairs, director of the Center for Practical Theology and a professor of evangelism at Boston University’s School of Theology. He researches congregational development, urban ministry and theology and popular culture.

  • Christine Letts

    Christine Letts is interim faculty director at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

  • David Bell

    David Bell is director of the Program for International Development, Community Planning and Environment at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

  • Ram A. Cnaan

    Ram A. Cnaan is a leading expert on faith-based social services and the chair of the doctoral program in social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He wrote the article “Defining Who Is a Volunteer: Conceptual and Empirical Considerations” for the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1996). He is also director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research and co-author of The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.

  • Gerald Gamm

    Gerald Gamm is an associate professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester in New York. He wrote the article “The Growth of Voluntary Associations in America, 1840-1940” for the Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1999).

  • Charles E. Zech

    Charles E. Zech is a professor of economics at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He wrote the article “The Value of Volunteers as Resources for Congregations” for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1998).

  • William Dinges

    William Dinges is a professor of religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and an expert on American Catholicism. He says the growing divide between what is “religious” and what is “spiritual” has resulted in spirituality that lends itself easily to supernatural and paranormal phenomena. He is a co-author of Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (2001) and can speak about the views of teenagers and young adults toward the Catholic Church.

In the South

  • Michelle Mohr Carney

    Michelle Mohr Carney is the director of the school of social work and professor of macro social work practice at Arizona State University in Phoenix. She is the former director of the University of Georgia’s Institute for Nonprofit Organizations and a professor of political science. She has taught courses in nonprofit management and community practice.

  • Todd Collins

    Todd Collins is director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. The institute aims to empower Western North Carolina to effectively deal with real policy problems by mobilizing community leaders, faculty, residents and students.

  • Denise Davis-Maye

    Denise Davis-Maye is an assistant professor with the social work program in the department of sociology, anthropology and social work at Auburn University in Alabama. Her research focuses on the role of community in African-American families.

    Contact: 334-244-3378.
  • Clive Mentzel

    Clive Mentzel is director of the Office of Active Citizenship and Service at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. OACS is home to more than 60 student service groups that work on local, national, and international problems through hands-on volunteer service.

  • Doyle Paul Johnson

    Doyle Paul Johnson is a professor of sociology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He wrote the article “Ecumenical Outreach Coalitions: Using Open-System Role-Set Theory to Examine Church and Community Cooperation” for the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1997).

In the Midwest

  • Corwin E. Smidt

    Corwin E. Smidt is a research fellow at the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics and a professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is author, editor or co-author of books on religion and public life, including In God We Trust? Religion and American Political Life; Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium; and The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy.

  • Mary V. Merrill

    Mary V. Merrill is a volunteer consultant and trainer based in Columbus, Ohio.

  • Sue Vineyard

    Sue Vineyard is an author and volunteer consultant based in Darien, Ill.

In the West

  • Jerome P. Baggett

    Jerome P. Baggett is professor of religion and society for the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley at the Graduate Theological Union. He wrote the book Habitat for Humanity: Building Private Homes, Building Public Religion (2000) and Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith (2009). He is currently conducting a research project on American atheists. He teaches courses on New Atheists, religion and politics and spirituality.

  • Suzanne Abel

    Suzanne Abel is senior adviser for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University in California.

  • Richard L. Wood

    Richard L. Wood is director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He wrote the book Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and contributed the essay “Religion, Faith-Based Organizing, and the Struggle for Justice” for the book Handbook of the Sociology of Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

  • Mark A. Chaves

    Mark A. Chaves is professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is an expert on religious organizations in the United States and leads the National Congregations Study.

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