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A man stands with his arms crossed wearing a white T-shirt that says "VOLUNTEER." Only the man's chest and arms are visible in the picture.

It’s well documented that nonprofit organizations have seen a sharp decline in donor counts in the past decade.

Higher education has not been spared. “‘Donors down, dollars up’ is a key trend in our philanthropic world right now,” Brian Gawor, vice president of research at the enrollment management company Ruffalo Noel Levitz, wrote in March.

The traditional logic of leadership at nonprofit organizations is that communications, events, education and volunteering—usually listed in that order, of increasing importance—form the basis of a sound donor pipeline. While donor dollars are easiest to measure, often more enigmatic to fundraisers are the numbers behind those earlier engagements and what is making them shift.

Mailchimp and Zoom and their like have enabled colleges to produce no shortage of the first three engagement types (communications, events, short-form courses). But the most psychologically profound and potentially impactful channel—volunteering—has always proven harder to scale effectively.

Now, new research from the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute reveals that nonprofit volunteerism has not rebounded post-pandemic, as organizations report difficulties recruiting volunteers and decreased volunteer workloads, even as demand for their services has increased.

While it’s universally acknowledged now that technological advances in customer and constituent management have given the for-profit world enormous marketing leverage over the nonprofit world (e.g. came first, for nonprofits years later), not enough attention is being paid to the technological changes disrupting routine volunteerism. I suspect that these technological changes may be behind drops in donor numbers.

The changes are both obvious and subtle.

Look, for instance, at the typical college advancement office’s student caller program. Not only have call-completion rates dropped precipitously since the advent of smartphones and robocalls, phone carriers are bundling nonprofit outreach calls as spam, the same catchall term they apply to credit card scams. For alumni interested in volunteering as callers, this conundrum certainly makes the proposition less appealing.

Look, also, at college admissions. The near ubiquity of software solutions integrated into admissions and advancement shops large and small is bound to have serious impact on volunteer structures and functions moving forward. Take the traditional role of alumni admissions interview volunteers, which COVID certainly forced into a virtual space in 2020.

Even in the decade before 2020, admissions volunteers I knew and worked with often questioned the weight of their input in the face of big data analysis. And as growing awareness of and training about implicit bias made admissions directors rightly squirmy about alums’ opinions of a candidate’s fit, software solutions also filled the void of anxiety.

“We are with you every step of the way,” one vendor promises, “from collecting and centralizing (or consolidating) impactful data to analyzing it to translating it into strategic decisions that move the needle.”

Admissions volunteers used to do some of that work.

At Emory University, the admissions office decided in 2022 to redirect its alumni volunteer corps of interviewers towards another role: supporting newly admitted students. Why the change?

“An evaluative alumni interview in the college admissions process is often considered a micro-barrier,” Emory explains in a FAQ on its website. “By providing a safe and low-risk environment for admitted students to explore the Emory experience through casual alumni conversations, we have removed a micro-barrier in the admissions process, supporting a more equitable process.”

The big question will be whether Emory’s former alumni gatekeepers will continue their volunteerism in service to a stronger yield—and whether software algorithms will do a better job at breaking down microbarriers to admission.

Colgate University and other institutions have also limited the weight of alumni interviews. On its advancement site, Colgate alums are told that “volunteers will connect with prospective students virtually through Colgate Admission Conversations, formerly referred to as interviews. These conversations are an informal way for students to learn more.” The conversations “are not evaluative and not required for admission.”

Another threatened role: chapter leaders.

Alumni clubs and chapters based on identity, geography or affinity have long been the tentpoles for convening a university’s population. For large universities, volunteer efforts to lead and coordinate such gatherings were a boon to advancement efforts, with events and volunteerism typically centered around university priorities, philanthropy or revenue driven by corporate sponsorships.

But witness a tool like Facebook’s birthday fundraisers, offered to users as a way to connect their philanthropic leanings to their cause activism from the comfort of their couch. Presuming the universities are liked by alums in a given region, what need do constituents have to attend local fundraisers for their alma maters anymore? The fundraisers (also offered on Instagram) do all the work for you: create the fundraiser landing page, conduct drip marketing outreach to your friends and deliver the proceeds to the university.

Finally, into this post-pandemic landscape, enter ChatGPT. We are only beginning to understand the disruptions smart AI bots like it may have on typical volunteer roles and spaces.

Consider these conversations I had:

  • “I need to write a letter to my Harvard classmates from the Class of 1973 asking them to give to Harvard,” I told ChatGPT. It wrote me a flawless letter using many of the same prosaic tricks a class gift officer will deploy: “As we look back on our time at Harvard, I want to ask for your support in giving back to the university that gave us so much,” it wrote. “Your gift, no matter the size, will make a significant impact on the university … I encourage you to consider making a gift to Harvard in honor of our 50th reunion.”
  • Then I asked this: “A student from my alma mater (NYU Stern) asked me for advice about interviewing at my company because I’m a corporate ambassador. Please write a response to her for me.” ChatGPT answered with a bulleted list of advice containing these items followed by techniques to approach each: research the company, review the job description carefully, practice with common interview questions, highlight your skills and experiences, ask questions, be professional and follow up. The message ended with “Go Bobcats!”
  • “I need to collect class notes from Penn State classmates from the Class of 1998 for the alumni magazine,” I told ChatGPT. Fortunately, the role of class secretary is still beyond its scope—for now. Check with the alumni association, it said, or on social media, or with the university archives office.

For the first two roles above, do your alumni volunteers do better? And if not, are there more meaningful, human volunteer roles they can take? Because I don’t see much of a future in these roles.

On a positive note, I see two ways AI and algorithms might enhance volunteerism and volunteer recruitment moving forward.

  1. Transparency for boards: At the highest levels of volunteerism for a nonprofit or university, volunteers are being treated to deeper dives into data than ever thought possible, along with ever more transparent insights into gaps in the nonprofit’s effectiveness or impact. Board members I’ve spoken with who have a keen appetite for data and data science love this new age of Tableau, PowerPoints and big data.
  2. Volunteer rankings: At the entry level of volunteerism for a nonprofit or college, the rank-and-file constituents are getting affirmed, stewarded and rewarded with “top fan” badges from social media, often with little or no effort required by paid staff. Long before I got an appreciation pin from the Girl Scouts of the USA, I earned a “top contributor” badge from my local council’s Facebook page (don’t tell Facebook that most of my contributions were newbie troop leader questions).

Volunteering to help a cause has never been easier in history, and raw volunteer counts for many nonprofits and universities are higher than ever thanks to COVID-era trends like virtual and microvolunteering. But the traditional logic of the landscape for donors and dollars for nonprofits is clearly in flux, as are conversations about the meaningfulness and nature of work. Consequently, it’s a great time for any nonprofit to audit and address its current product line of volunteer roles.

Joe McGonegal is senior director of advancement communications at Suffolk University.

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