Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

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.”   

READ: Maximize Your Charitable Giving Donations — Aligning With Your Budget and Passions

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!” 

Crisis Clarifies: Delivering Results During COVID-19

About a month before the coronavirus came to dominate our lives, I got lucky. I’d been tracking the spread of the epidemic purely out of curiosity to see if SARS-CoV-2 would develop the way other coronaviruses had before it. My entire professional life was focused on public health and infectious disease, so I was interested to see how this played out. I didn’t anticipate how important that information would be to the months that followed.

Casually, in passing, one of our volunteers mentioned their excitement about an upcoming trip to Italy. I asked around and sure enough, several other volunteers and three staff had trips to Europe planned in the next few months. Suddenly I could see the direct line between the epidemic overseas and our operations in Colorado.

My organization, Project Angel Heart, provides medically tailored meals to adults and children living with chronic and terminal illness. We interact every week with the most fragile people outside of a hospital, and, I felt certain, this thing was headed our way. We needed a plan.

In mid-February, I pulled my team together to come up with a way to reinvent our operations – moving from an organization with 40 staff and over 500 weekly on-site volunteers to a skeleton crew designed to get more than 10,000 meals to 1,300 people every week without pause. We set up clear “triggers” – events that would move us from one phase of our response to another (e.g. the first confirmed infection in Colorado) and we agreed on how we would make key decisions.

By early March, we were moving through our “triggers” faster than any of us anticipated. Schools closed. Family members lost jobs. My senior team and I managed a tight list of risk factors to our organization and one factor remained at the very top: staff anxiety, morale and fear of the unknown. Our plan wasn’t enough. What I did next boiled down to three big ideas that have helped navigate our team through this pandemic:

1. Purpose is power

Everyone on our team was drawn to our organization because they believe in our mission. I needed to remind them of that. So, we talked at length about why we were an essential service and what would happen to our clients if we stopped serving meals. We fought back fear with purpose. They needed to know their jobs had value and meaning and the sacrifices they made to keep coming to work had a lasting impact on other people’s lives.

I also knew that if we were going to keep our office running, we needed to be explicit about how we were protecting the health and wellbeing of our team. Everyone was assigned specific safety tasks (e.g. cleaning work spaces, reporting travel away from home) and collective accountability quickly became a value. We openly discussed concerns, sometimes contentiously, and updated safety protocols often to address them. Team members ran daily mindfulness and meditation sessions and created a mini pantry of supplies to cover items that were hard to find at grocery stores. We took caring for each other as seriously as caring for our clients.

2. Triage

Effectively managing through crisis requires knowing what you have control over versus what you don’t. The most tangible thing I could do as a leader was foster calm predictability to our work. My leadership team and I tried to provide focus, clearly delineating what was important (developing a new delivery

method for clients in apartment buildings with confirmed COVID outbreaks) from what was not. That new organizational strategy we began planning in early first quarter – it is still on hold. I have no regrets about that.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

In the beginning, I thought the last thing my team needed was another meeting. I thought for sure they wanted to stay focused and undistracted. I was wrong. Hearing from me and from the rest of our senior team was what allowed everyone to stay focused. Similarly, our volunteers, donors, and partners wanted to hear from us, and they wanted to know how they could help. Amidst so much uncertainty, over-communicating and transparency were important and necessary to keeping our team at ease.

Leaders use crisis to clarify what matters most. If you continue to function as if everything is the same – as if those performance goals developed in 2019 are still equally relevant – you will seem out of touch, and, as a result, without control. That doesn’t mean just going with the flow. It means setting a course that recognizes and even embraces the crisis to serve the mission of the organization. That’s what we have done at Project Angel Heart. While our organization had to pivot, like so many others, we are learning what true resiliency is about and we are taking this challenge as an opportunity to make us stronger, more nimble and ultimately better in the long run to continue to serving our clients.

Project Angel Heart prepares and delivers medically tailored meals to people living with life-threatening illnesses across the Denver metro area and in Colorado Springs. For more information, visit www.projectangelheart.org.

Oryan Headshot Owen Ryan is the President & CEO of Project Angel Heart.