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Demand for volunteers often exceeds supply

Volunteers in a warehouse carrying boxes of food.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative
Wendi Folgleson, center, has been volunteering at All Faiths Food Bank in Sarasota for seven years. Recent data suggests Floridians don’t volunteer their time as often as people in other states.

Unpaid workforce hasn’t bounced completely back from pandemic’s upheaval.

On a recent day at All Faiths Food Bank in Sarasota, about 15 volunteers filled boxes with food from a large crate, stacking them on a pallet for distribution to needy families.

Wendi Folgleson, wearing a T-shirt that read “Hunger Hero,” has been doing this for seven years. "I absolutely love it. I loved it from day one," she said.

She's one person in an army of volunteers in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties who give their time and talents to nonprofit organizations.

"It just makes you feel so good because you feel like you're doing something helpful for the community and for a community that needs it," she said.

But she and other volunteers are a minority in Florida, according to data from AmeriCorps and the U.S Census Bureau.

In AmeriCorps' latest biennial report, the nationwide rate of formal volunteering through organizations dropped by seven percentage points, from 30% in 2019 to 23.2% in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida ranks at the bottom of the list. In 2021, 15.9% of Floridians surveyed said they formally volunteered through an organization. That's compared with 26.2% in Colorado, 28.8% in Connecticut, 29.8% in Delaware and 40% in Utah.

Other low-ranking states include Nevada, at 16.8%, New Mexico at 19.7% California at 18.3% and Georgia at 19.9%.

"I am shocked by the number, to be quite honest with you," said All Faiths’ director of philanthropy, Rachel Barkley.

All Faiths has one of the largest volunteer staffs in the area. Last year, 3,150 volunteers performed more than 40,000 hours of work at the food bank, Barkley says. But in 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they struggled when the agency’s need for help was peaking.

"We furloughed all of our volunteers at the onset of COVID," she said. "We learned to appreciate them a lot more because our staff, I believe, at the time, of 55, had to take over the work that the volunteers typically did, in addition to doing their work."

When restrictions were lifted, staffing levels returned to normal. "I think that isolation and not being able to do much for that period of time really inspired people to want to come back," Barkley said. "And it felt good to help other people and interact with the community."

A new approach

Not every organization has bounced back so quickly. The pandemic hit the volunteer pool in Manatee County hard enough that the county is rethinking the way it recruits and manages its volunteers.

"It's been an ongoing discussion for the past few weeks, and we're progressing on how we want to move forward," said Justin Intorcia, a talent acquisition specialist for the county.

Intorcia says data show Baby Boomers make up the bulk of volunteers. "And, you know, the pandemic did hit that subset pretty hard," he said.

"So it's about getting them back into the organization and doing it in a way where they feel like they're validated and that they know that what they're doing is going to make a difference."

The county uses volunteers in a variety of departments, including animal services, libraries and parks. Intorcia says the participation levels have still not recovered from the pandemic.

"I would say it's still a work in progress," he said. Still, "it's nowhere near as bad as it was back in 2021."

Intorcia says he is almost ready to present a proposal to the county administrator, adding that implementing an application process is part of the county’s plan.

"If you are interested in volunteering and you have the desire, we will do our best to find you a spot where you can put what you'd like to do to good use," he said. "It is like recruiting. You do have to recruit for volunteers, and they're a big part of the organization in the sense where they can make a difference, just like we do as far as paid employees."

Volunteers in a warehouse putting bags of food into boxes.
Jim DeLa
Community News Collaborative
Volunteers at All Faiths Food Bank prepare boxes for distribution at the organization’s headquarters in Sarasota. Recent data suggests Floridians don’t volunteer their time as often as people in other states.

He also says Manatee County has also been approved as an official certifying organization for the President’s Volunteer Services Award, that recognizes individuals and groups who have demonstrated a sustained commitment to volunteer service. Once the county approves the new programs, “we can begin to start awarding volunteers for their service to the community,” he said.

The award was established in 2003 by President George W. Bush. It is the highest volunteer recognition in the country.

Back at All Faiths, volunteers -- most of them Baby Boomers -- say attitudes on volunteering were ingrained early on. "Volunteering is just something I kind of grew up with, came from my parents, came from the people that I hung around with in school," said John Reichner.

"Building a sense of community is pretty important, and particularly as fractured as we are now, trying to find something that somehow doesn't involve hyper-partisanship,' he said. "And at the same time, frankly, people need our help."

Wendi Folgleson says the personal satisfaction she gets from volunteering keeps her coming back. "A lot of what we do is very assembly line-oriented at this location, which is somewhat mindless, but it doesn't matter. I walk out of here after every single shift I work feeling like I'm on cloud nine."

The data

Every two years, AmeriCorps conducts a survey about volunteerism and other forms of civic engagement in the United States in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to the research, between 2020 and 2021 during the global COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 51 percent of Americans, or 124.7 million people, informally helped friends, neighbors, or community members at least once a month.

Additionally. more than 23 percent of Americans, or 60.7 million people, formally volunteered, giving more than 4.1 billion hours of service with an estimated economic value of $122.9 billion.

Florida Highlights

  • 2,835,717 formal volunteers contributed 178.1 million hours of service through organizations worth an estimated $4.9 billion.
  • 15.9% of residents formally volunteered through organizations.
  • 93.2% of residents talked to or spent time with friends or family.
  • 44.6% of residents informally helped others by exchanging favors with their neighbors.
  • 64.2% of residents had a conversation or spent time with their neighbors.
  • 17.8% of residents belonged to an organization.
  • 36.8% of residents donated $25 or more to charity.

This story is courtesy of the Community News Collaborative, made possible by a grant from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. You can reach Jim DeLa at jdela@cncfl.org