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California volunteerism plummets, leaving nonprofits scrambling for help

Troy Brunet poses for photos in San Francisco on April 5, 2023. | Eric Risberg/AP Photo

Nonprofits across California are scrambling for help, as the number of willing volunteers has plummeted. It’s not just the Golden State—a severe volunteer shortage has swept across the U.S.

National volunteer participation was just 23.2% in 2021, a 7% drop, according to the most recent U.S. Census and AmeriCorps survey.

This decrease in volunteerism is the largest seen since the survey started in 2002, putting nonprofits—effectively America’s social safety net—at risk. Colorado, Hawaii and Wisconsin all reported double-digit drops in volunteering.

It’s a bit of a different case in California, which saw some 5.7 million volunteers contribute 379 million hours of service to organizations worth $13.5 billion. When the pandemic hit, Californians gave back: An estimated 13.4 million residents helped their neighbors during the Covid-19 emergency, and half of all Americans reported informally helping their neighbors between 2020 and 2021.

Although volunteering has faltered in recent years, some California residents viewed the pandemic as a way to help those that supported them through tough times.

Troy Brunet has volunteered with Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco and leads its initiative to give eyeglasses to those who need them. | Eric Risberg/AP Photo

“Covid hit us, and it really has just stopped the world from spinning around here—everything became very stagnant,” said Troy Brunet, a volunteer with Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco. “I just want people to be able to step back into coming to help, to make sure that people can move forward in a better way of life. Because the negativity that is running rampant through this country, it is absolutely exhausting.”

Brunet has worked with Homeless Connect for 16 years, helping unhoused people get eyeglasses and connecting with fellow volunteers and community members.

“I'm HIV positive, and it hit me really hard,” Brunet said. “I knew doggone well that everything I'm going to be focusing on besides recovering from it, was making sure I would help people because people were there for me.”

California outpaces other states with large populations, such as Texas, Florida and New York, in its volunteerism rates. Data from the volunteerism survey represents national service activity completed between Jan. 18, 2022, and Jan. 17, 2023. AmeriCorps says its Current Population Survey Civic Engagement and Volunteering Supplement is “the most robust longitudinal survey” for measuring America’s civil engagement.

The nonprofit industry is massive in the greater San Francisco metro area, where an estimated 29,634 organizations help the city and its residents with everything from homelessness to health care. The city gave over 600 nonprofits roughly $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars in 2022, though a Standard investigation found that $25 million of that funding went to organizations that were blocked by state law from receiving or spending funds.

Nonetheless, nonprofit organizations and their volunteers have provided core services to the San Francisco Bay Area. A group of volunteers works to save baby bluebirds in San Jose, volunteers regularly welcome some 80,000 members to a magic mushroom church in Oakland, and some San Francisco residents help shelters connect old dogs with forever homes, just to name a few. 

Associated Press contributed to this report.