Jul 5, 2022 - News

Arizona nonprofits can't get volunteers to return post-pandemic

Illustration of three raised hand shapes traced by a dotted line

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Arizona nonprofits are struggling to get volunteers back to pre-pandemic levels — threatening programs at some major organizations, including the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central and Northern Arizona.

Why it matters: According to ASU's Lodestar Center, more than 13,500 nonprofits in Maricopa County provide services such as providing shelter for homeless people, animal rescue and after-school support.

By the numbers: On Arizona Gives Day two years ago, 2,225 volunteers pledged 81,862 hours of service at nonprofits across the state, according to the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits.

  • During this year's event, just 925 volunteers pledged 36,269 hours.

What's happening: A combination of forces has led to the volunteering lapse, alliance employees Natasha Lopez-Rodriguez and Robyn Reyff tell Axios.

  • As employers continue work-from-home options, fewer company volunteer groups are showing up.
  • Some people are still not comfortable returning to group settings because of COVID-19 concerns.
  • The price of gas is making it more expensive to participate in some volunteer opportunities.

The impact: Some nonprofits may have to halt programs that rely heavily on volunteers.

  • The Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides temporary housing for the families of out-of-town patients who are in Phoenix to get medical care, tells Axios it may have to stop providing meals.

Flashback: Before the pandemic, people would have to plan months in advance to volunteer with the organization's Dinnertime Heroes program, CEO Kerry Schulman says.

  • Groups of up to six bring ingredients and cook dinner for the families staying at one of three houses.
A group of people in masks stand around lasagna and salad in a kitchen.
Volunteers from the Mayo Clinic at a Dinnertime Heroes program. Photo: Courtesy of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central and Northern Arizona

During the pandemic, the nonprofit closed to volunteers, but Schulman says it expected the program to bounce back as soon as the restrictions were lifted.

  • That hasn't been the case. And now, the organization is almost 1,300% over its allotted food budget and is considering pulling the plug on meals unless it can ramp up volunteering quickly, she says.

What Schulman's saying: "We are so grateful to our volunteers and we miss them, and we'd love to have people come back and spend some time with our families and prepare a healthy meal for them."

Meanwhile: Back-to-School Clothing Drive, a nonprofit that provides school supplies and uniforms to thousands of Arizona students each July, is hoping volunteers will return for the first in-person distribution event since 2019.

How it works: About 2,000 volunteers pack and distribute supplies over the course of a week in July.

  • It's one of the largest volunteering events in the state.

Taking precaution: Executive director Karl Gentles says many organizations have shown interest in volunteering, but some still have COVID-19 restrictions so this year's drive will not allow as many volunteers as in the past to provide for social distancing precautions.

What he's saying: "It's going to be a slow build back to full volunteer strength. We're all navigating this together and working to not only support the students and the schools through our programs but also to do it as carefully as we can," Gentles says.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Phoenix.

More Phoenix stories