Colorado’s Declining Volunteerism: Factors and Strategies for Rekindling Civic Engagement

Volunteering is down, according to Volunteering and Civic Life in America, a report by the U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps. The research indicated that 23.2 percent of people in the U.S. volunteered with an organization in 2021, down from 30 percent in 2019. Colorado had a 16-point drop, the largest of any state, from 42.2 percent in 2019 to 26.2 percent in 2021.  

Local experts point to several factors. “There has been an exacerbation of the decline of social capital in general,” says Paul Lhevine, president and CEO of the Colorado Nonprofit Association. Corporations are still engaging with employees by setting up volunteer events, but another source of volunteers, service organizations, have long had declining membership. “This is going to take a lot of leaders, a lot of organizations, and a lot of folks across sectors to put their minds to the task of how do we bring more people into the world of community service.”   

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Another factor is that COVID-19 made people reconsider their schedules. “As a volunteer-based organization, we are always competing for people’s time,” says Abby Hanson, engagement coordinator for Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado. “After the pandemic there was a shift in how people were valuing their time, especially feeling like there was so much lost time to make up for reconnecting with family and traveling.”  

To help reconnect while volunteering, VOC offers half-day projects for families with children ages 6 to 12, and family camping days in which volunteers ages 12-plus work on trails while kids 6 to 11 participate in nature activities. The focus is on preserving outdoor spaces that people enjoy. “Colorado still has that affinity for the outdoors,” says Anna Zawisza, development and outreach officer for VOC. “When you love something, you take care of it.”  

READ: Made in Colorado 2022 — Outdoor Edition

During the pandemic, outdoor volunteering rates remained level because people could maintain social distancing while working outside. Colorado Parks & Wildlife saw only a slight decrease, from 4,476 total volunteers in 2019 to 4,459 in 2021. They worked more than 300,000 total hours each year, the equivalent of approximately 146 full-time employees.  

According to a CPW spokesperson, word of mouth is still the most common way people first hear about volunteering opportunities. Second is visiting a CPW location like a state park or wildlife area; third is online through CPW Connect or social media. These days volunteers want shorter time commitments, flexible schedules and/or locations, and a variety of ways to get involved.  

Just as the outdoors attracts volunteers, so do pets. Foothills Animal Shelter in Golden has 300 shelter volunteers and 158 foster volunteers. Volunteers make six-month commitments; the shifts are two hours. “Our retention rate is highest with older volunteers, but we are happy to welcome all ages even if they are not able to volunteer past the initial six-month commitment,” says Kristen Galles, volunteer program manager.   

Whether volunteers are retirees with free time, high school students filling requirements, or adults with family and career-related time constraints, organizations are offering flexible schedules. Last year Denver-based Project Angel Heart had more than 7,700 volunteers donating more than 57,000 hours of service. They sliced vegetables, packaged meals and delivered meals to people living with illness. Volunteers also decorated meal bags at home or at their workplaces, often as a team-building activity.  

Now Project Angel Heart is expanding into Brighton and Longmont. The key to finding volunteers in each new community is to locate its center. “Is it the farmers market, is it the library, where should we be?” says Chief Operating Officer Kate Johnston. “How do we get connected with the existing network?”  

The group distributes bags to school groups and artist communities for decorating, encourages families to deliver meals together and hosts a contest among current volunteers, with a gift basket for the volunteer who brings in the most new volunteers.   

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado, volunteerism is slowly starting to pick back up. “It is not happening fast enough to meet the ever-increasing needs of our most vulnerable populations, not the least of which are our young people,” says CEO Elycia Cook. “Many believe being a mentor or having a mentor is a big commitment. As a mentor (BIG) myself, I am here to tell you, it is not. You don’t have to be perfect, just present!” 

Elycia Cook — CEO of the Year 2022 Finalist

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READ: 2022 CEO of the Year — John Street

 

Elycia Cook 
CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado  
Englewood  

With a vision of every child in Colorado having access to a mentor, Elycia Cook, 55, in March 2021 became CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado, one of the largest youth mentoring organizations in the state. Previously she spent 12 years as the president and CEO of Friends First, a peer mentoring organization dedicated to educating and mentoring teens to make positive life choices and develop healthy relationships through education and mentoring. 

Cook, the first Black CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado, had never left a 50-mile radius of her home in Detroit when she started college. With the guidance of mentors, she received a full scholarship to the Japan Center for Michigan Universities. She lived and worked in Japan for more than eight years and is fluent in spoken Japanese. Today, she teaches Japanese to teens and is passionate about international exchange. Over the years she’s helped several young people visit, study and live abroad.  

In June 2022, BBBSC won two major awards at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) 2022 Bigger Together celebration: the Large Agency of the Year Award, and the Large Agency Kommerstad Board of the Year Award. 

Cook believes her success was shaped by the influence of positive role models and has dedicated most of her career to mentoring causes.