Food banks, warming shelters and donation centers are all held together by a sometimes invisible force: volunteers. But finding people to fill those roles has become increasingly difficult due to an aging volunteer base and a lack of new people stepping in.
Paula Hall, director and CEO of Community Action Program of East Central Oregon, said they tend to have more luck when they go out and search for volunteers for a specific project, such as the Dancing with the Stars event, or the Homelessness Point in Time Count.
“We don’t have a large pool of volunteers,” Hall said. “It seems to be more successful if the volunteer project is a time-limited duration instead of ongoing.”
CAPECO serves as a regional hub for services to low-income and disadvantaged people, and many volunteer efforts for things like food banks are coordinated through specific agencies. But she said there are difficulties with getting consistent volunteers.
“We are unable to secure enough volunteers to have an ongoing volunteer program on a long-term basis,” she said. “We have volunteers who want to come in and do a couple hours once every couple of weeks. It’s very hard to build a volunteer base on those inquiries.”
The organization utilizes volunteers for its food delivery program, as well as people to work at warehouses and local food pantries.
Hall said CAPECO tracks volunteers and volunteer hours, and has seen a trend in the past few years.
“We don’t see new people of the younger generation entering into volunteering,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because people are working longer, caring for grandchildren.” She said. “The number of new volunteers is dwindling at a rapid pace.”
She said many of the volunteers operating food pantries are the same ones who were doing so 10 or 20 years ago, and are now in their 80s.
Dave Hughes, director of Hermiston’s Agape House, agreed that most service clubs are struggling to maintain membership.
Hughes said they always need people to help deliver items in the summer when the donation of household goods increases.
“There’s a lot from yard sales and people cleaning house, and we struggle finding enough people to help sort and pick things up,” he said.
Agape House tries to focus on helping younger people cultivate an interest in volunteering, Hughes said.
“If we can instill in them a spirit of being volunteers now, it’ll carry on the rest of their lives,” Hughes said.
They offer positions on their board of directors for juniors and seniors in high school, or college students. But some of those board members recently left for college, and all those positions are now vacant.
Recruitment is also tough, Hughes said, especially in the summers when many public events tend to fall on the same day.
“For example, the golf tournament,” he said of Agape House’s fundraiser last Saturday. “It falls on the same day as Funfest. It stretches us pretty thin to have a presence at both.”
United Way of Umatilla and Morrow counties refers people to organizations that need volunteers and donations.
Director Kricket Nicholson said volunteerism has decreased, for a variety of reasons. Many of the people who used to be stay-at-home moms would volunteer, she said.
“Most are now in the workplace,” she said. “Even younger people — employers expect more of them. Or people have time, but they have their own things.”
Nicholson added that monetary donations have gone down as well.
“There are so many causes, and non-profits asking for money,” she said. “It’s almost like, who gets to the donors first.”