It’s no secret that America’s volunteer sector has experienced a slow decline for at least the past 15 years. Observers have blamed it on a variety of things: people being too busy with work, spending too much time online, stress from changing family patterns, more frequent relocations, maybe even becoming too lazy.
Some of those reasons may be valid. But there’s another explanation that those of us in Cranberry’s municipal government have been leaning toward: it’s that there hasn’t been sufficient investment in America’s volunteer sector. Without resources, nonprofits don’t have the capacity to engage volunteers effectively.
To attract and retain volunteers today, you need to place a high value the volunteer’s time, provide them with the tools and training their work requires, strive to respect their family commitments, make their continued involvement as convenient as possible, and show appreciation for what they have accomplished.
All of this matters a great deal to Cranberry and to every other community that depends on the vitality of its volunteer sector. Our athletic associations are an excellent example of what a strong volunteer commitment can do. But it’s our volunteer fire company that may be most mission critical. One of the core functions of any municipality is to respond to emergencies. The Cranberry Volunteer Fire Company, CTVFC, is a key strategic partner in answering those 9-1-1 calls.
Back in June of 2015, the Township and CTVFC saw the challenges that faced us in attracting and retaining volunteers going forward. So we embarked on a Strategic Planning Process. It was grounded in a commitment to maintaining a highly qualified volunteer fire and rescue force well into the future. The most likely alternative – a full-time paid fire department – would have cost our taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Our planning process involved a group of residents, firefighters, outside experts and Township officials. They examined every aspect of our current and future fire service needs. It represented our best collective thinking, and it resulted in a strategic plan which our Board of Supervisors and CTVFC formally adopted in 2016. The plan outlined a number of steps that needed to be accomplished.
I’m pleased to report that implementing those steps is now well underway. Last year, the Township reorganized staff to devote four full-time professionals to support the fire company’s efforts. Just this month, our Board demonstrated its commitment to the Strategic Plan by authorizing $2.1 million in physical improvements to our two fire stations. And CTVFC, for its part, is completely restructuring how they operate, consistent with the Strategic Plan.
All of this may be a gamble; after all, the decline among volunteers is not just a local issue; it’s a national problem with complicated causes. But after 27 years as Township Manager, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone bet against the collective wisdom of Cranberry Township’s residents.