National Trail Nonprofits Persevere in 2020

When Covid-19 led to the shutdown of many offices in early 2020, trail organizations were justifiably concerned about the impact that might have on their programming, volunteerism, and annual giving. Many fundraising events were cancelled or quickly pivoted to digital formats. In-person volunteer programs including important trail maintenance events were cancelled or scaled back and new protocols were put in place to ensure the safety of volunteers and staff.

Despite these setbacks, the dedication and resourcefulness of National Scenic and National Historic Trail (NSHT) organizations resulted in quite different outcomes than may have been expected.  

Overall, there was a nearly 38-percent drop in the total number of active volunteers across all NSHT organizations from 2019 to 2020 (down to 13,816 in 2020 from 22,224 the previous year). However, this figure is far less shocking than it might seem at first glance. The volunteers that were able to work in 2020 increased their efforts and contributed significantly more volunteer hours per individual than the previous year. In 2019, the average volunteer contributed 44.9 hours of their time, compared to 68.2 hours per volunteer in 2020. As a result, total volunteer hours on NSHTs decreased only 5.4 percent (from 997,162 in 2019 to 942,886 in 2020)–an impressive figure, given the circumstances.

Seven organizations saw an increase in volunteerism over the course of the year and some trails introduced new technology to help them better track volunteer hours or improve reporting procedures. The Oregon-California Trails Association more effectively leveraged its online reporting portal, making it easier for volunteers to log their hours. This resulted in more reliable and accurate reporting, including 31,000 volunteer hours logged from a single volunteer-run trail center that previously had not reported volunteer hours.  

Some trail organizations reported static or decreased local or State government support, yet many trails saw a notable boost in individual giving. In fact, the total value of private-sector contributions in 2020 reached a staggering $23,146,874–an increase of over 45 percent from the record set the previous year. All told, the estimated value of private and volunteer contributions to trail organizations in 2020 totaled nearly $48.8 million–more than a $5 million (or a 13.3 percent) increase from the prior year.

Though the impact of Covid-19 challenged organizations to rethink how they work and engage with the public, trail organizations demonstrated their resourcefulness by finding ways to pivot and remain connected to their support networks by focusing on digital outreach efforts. At the same time, many volunteers were motivated to invest more time and donors increased their support when organizations truly needed it. 

This demonstrates a flexible and resilient NSHT community that involves committed individuals who tirelessly give of themselves to maintain, protect, and advocate on behalf of our National Trail System.

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