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Volunteer Driver Programs

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Written by Helen Kerschner, Ph.D., Director, National Volunteer Transportation Center


Volunteer driver programs are not a new phenomenon. In fact, the example below suggests that volunteer driver programs have been around for quite some time:

The Parmly LifePointes Program of Chisago City, Minnesota provides a historic perspective of the volunteer driver program origin. The program was founded in 1862 by Swedish immigrants who saw a need to care for the elderly. Its volunteer driver program was organized in 1905 when volunteers used sleighs and wagons to take older adults to the train depot and to church. (1)

Although volunteer driver programs no longer use sleighs and wagons for transporting passengers, older adults continue to be their primary passengers. Volunteer driver programs also represent a method of providing transportation that is gaining merited attention.

Transportation is one of the key activities of daily living for people with chronic disabilities, many of whom are older adults. While driving is their preferred mode of transportation, research tells us that people tend to outlive their driving expectancy, men by 10 years and women by 6 years. (2) If indeed older adults do outlive their driving expectancy, the time when they no longer drive equals years when they will be transportation-dependent on individuals or organized transportation options. Some refer to such options as “the family of transportation services.” The informal “family” includes family members, friends, neighbors, and caregivers. The formal “family” includes public transit, ADA paratransit (for people with disabilities), dial-a-ride and other shuttle services, public or private community transit options, private transit (taxi services, and ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft), and volunteer transportation services. 

Today, the National Volunteer Transportation Center includes 706 volunteer driver programs in its data base. These programs are estimated to have been in operation an average of 18 years, and on an annual basis provide almost 5,000,000 one-way rides, involve almost 55,000 volunteer drivers, mobilize almost 50,000 volunteer vehicles, total almost 60,000,000 miles from volunteer driving trips, count more than 6,000,000 volunteer driver hours, and value volunteer hours at approximately $1,400,000,000. (3) In 2014 alone, 190 volunteer driver programs applied for the Center’s nationally acclaimed STAR Award Program. These volunteer driver programs were located in 30 states and operated an average of 19 years. As a group, they provided 1,348,512 one-way rides, totaled 16,197,620 miles from volunteer driving trips, counted 1,680,620 volunteer driver hours, and valued volunteer hours at $37,884,776. (4)

Relevance to the Aging Population

Older adults may not have family members, caregivers, friends, or neighbors who are able to transport them. And, although a variety of formal transportation options may be available, it may be difficult or impossible for older adults to access them. The reason is that the physical and cognitive limitations that made it difficult or impossible for them to drive can make it difficult or impossible for them to use transportation that requires the passenger to get to the service (the transit center, the bus stop, the curb) or to use services that are unable to provide passenger assistance.

Although volunteer driver programs often are organized because services are not available (especially in rural America) or because they can be inexpensive to operate, a more compelling reason appears to be that they can meet the transportation needs of older adult passengers. They have the ability to meet such needs when they provide assistance (to-the-door, through-the-door, at-the-destination, and carrying packages), when they make multiple stops on the same trip, when they travel beyond city and county and sometimes state boundaries, and in general when they get older adults where they need to go. Traditional transportation services usually cannot provide these types of assistance and services because they weren’t designed to provide them. 

One of the major contributions of volunteer driver programs is that they enable older adults to get to health services. Another finding from the 2014 STAR Awards applications was that four of the top five destinations identified by applicants were medical transportation: 96% to doctors’ offices, 92% to non-emergency health care centers, 91% to pharmacies, and 80% to dialysis centers. Shopping at 84% completed the top five destinations. While life-enriching (senior center, beauty shop) and life-sustaining (bank, post office) destinations are important, access to medical care is applauded by older adults and transit program managers alike because transportation services to these and other destinations enable older adults to live independently and maintain their health. Some program managers even say their transportation services can delay premature institutionalization for one or two years.

Although older adults are the primary beneficiaries of volunteer driver services, they also are important contributors. A 2006 Beverly Foundation study of 714 volunteer drivers found that 63% of them were age 65 and older. 55% of volunteer drivers of all ages indicated that they spent 1-5 hours a week volunteering to drive and 30% of them volunteered for seven years or more. (5)

Grantmaker Support for Volunteer Driver Programs

The Federal Transit Administration has provided limited financial resources through its New Freedom Funding and its 5310 program which funds vehicles, some operating costs, and mobility management. The New Freedom program is now part of the 5310 grant program and its funds are allocated to states, which then allocate them to regional and city governments and to local transportation services, including volunteer driver programs. 

Funding of volunteer driver programs often is community-based. Examples of local organizations that fund volunteer driver programs include Area Agencies on Aging, community transportation services, hospitals and health providers, philanthropic groups such as the United Way and Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, and service organizations such as the American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society.

Foundations that have funded volunteer driver programs include The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Helen Andrus Benedict Foundation, the Retirement Research Foundation, the Winter Park Health Foundation and the Archstone Foundation.

The Beverly Foundation was one of the first organizations to study and honor volunteer driver programs and prepare technical and informational materials about them. The Foundation, which dissolved its operations in 2013, addressed senior transportation services and emphasized volunteer driver programs. From 2000 to 2013, its STAR Awards for Excellence conveyed more than $1,000,000 to 133 STAR Award winners representing 115 organizations in 47 states. During that time the Foundation documented more than 600 volunteer driver programs and gave at least 50% of its awards to them. In addition, it developed an extensive collection of no-cost, on-line technical, informational, and educational materials. The Foundation’s successor, the National Volunteer Transportation Center, is the repository of these materials, the STAR Award program, and the web-based map of volunteer driver programs. Other organizations such as the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the National Center on Senior Transportation also have supported the development of informational materials and provided small innovation grants.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was responsible for the development of many volunteer driver programs through its Faith in Action initiative for service to the chronically ill and to frail older adults. From 1983 to 2008, the Foundation supported faith communities to mobilize volunteers in providing assistance related to activities of daily living, one of which was transportation. Involving volunteers to provide rides to a doctor’s office, the grocery store, and other places became the central activity of many Faith in Action projects. In the late 1990s the Corporation for National and Community Service made AmeriCorps and ElderCare funding available to Faith in Action projects. Other funders who made efforts to participate in or replicate the initiative were The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Public Welfare Foundation, The Commonwealth Fund, and The Colorado Trust. (6)

The first Faith in Action project funded by RWJF was in Boston, Massachusetts. FriendshipWorks coordinates trained volunteer escorts who accompany elders to and from medical appointments. They offer physical assistance and emotional support - from the recipient’s living room to their doctor’s office, and safely home again, at no cost to elders. Although some volunteers drive passengers, many volunteers accompany elders on public transportation or act as escorts for elders who are dropped off and picked up at the medical facility by volunteer drivers from other organizations. The program also can provide bilingual escorts to help ensure equal access to health care for Spanish-speaking elders. 

The Mr.Goodcents Foundation of DeSoto, Kansas developed a community public transportation strategy which helps communities identify mobility needs, solutions, and funding to help senior adults remain mobile within the community. “Good Rides” utilizes a neighbor-to-neighbor approach, including incorporating local high school community service programs for students to ride the bus to help seniors with running errands, carrying packages, and providing companionship.

The Rose Community Foundation of Denver supported the “Getting There Collaborative", a multi-year initiative to improve transportation for older adults in the Greater Denver/Boulder community. Developed in partnership with the Colorado Health Foundation, the Getting There Collaborative focused on coordinating public transportation networks and human services transportation (provided by agencies that must transport clients to and from the services or programs they offer as part of their mission), by improving collaboration and communication among and between transportation providers and stakeholders. It also addressed non-governmental options, including volunteer driver programs, and travel assessment and travel training programs and created a Getting There resource transportation guide that is now housed with Denver Regional Mobility and Access Council (DRMAC) and widely disseminated throughout the Denver metro area.

Trending Topics

Volunteer Driver Programs exhibit great variation in the way they are organized and the services they provide to passengers. Programs may allow escorts to ride with passengers, or the volunteer drivers act as escorts. They may provide rides to specific destinations for specific needs, or to many destinations for many needs. They may provide only a few rides or many thousands of rides. They may charge for rides or ask passengers for donations. They may be supported by taxes, grants, contracted rides, fundraisers, or passenger fees. The manner in which they are organized and managed and the way they involve volunteers (and often their vehicles) can impact not only the effectiveness of transportation service delivery but also the costs incurred in delivering those services. Such issues are important to the efficient, effective, and economical operation of any volunteer driver program and will be of great importance to potential funders.

The links below are to discussions and examples of volunteer driver program sponsorship, infrastructure, passenger access and assistance, operating budgets, driver training, drivers and vehicles, and technology. Each of these topics and program examples represent an issue of importance to older adult passengers and funders alike. (7)


The inability of older adults to drive, their transportation dependency, and their transportation access challenges create their need for supportive transportation. Volunteer driver programs, with their ability to offer personalized assistance, may not offer the freedom of driving one’s own automobile and going wherever one wants to go, at any time of the day or night, but they offer ease of ride scheduling, a vast array of destinations, and some even offer 24/7 service. Although not validated by research, program managers say that their services contribute to the ability of their passengers to live independently and to age in place. Some even say that their services enable older adults to delay premature institutionalization for one to two years. 

What is the key to their success? According to volunteer transportation managers and passengers alike, the key to a successful volunteer driver program is the volunteer driver. Volunteers want to help others, to do something meaningful, and to give back. They tend to serve as drivers for many years, and spend considerable time volunteering to drive. They receive their greatest satisfaction from helping others, being needed, and getting to know the passengers. They are the reason volunteer driver programs often are referred to as “the hope of the future” in meeting the transportation needs of older adults.

Grantmakers can contribute to ensuring the success and expansion of volunteer driver programs by supporting one or several of the above mentioned avenues: program sponsorship, mileage reimbursement, information and referral programs, risk management and insurance support, driver training and program staffing, vehicle acquisition, and purchases of software.

Source: National Volunteer Transportation Center January 2015


Online Resource Libraries

Considerable resources are available on topics of senior transportation and volunteerism. However, very few have been developed on the topic of volunteer driver programs. Perhaps the most widely read references were developed by the Beverly Foundation and the National Volunteer Transportation Center, all of which are available on the National Volunteer Transportation Center website.

The Beverly Foundation website includes informational and resource materials on volunteer driver programs. In 2014, those materials were transferred to the National Volunteer Transportation Center website.

The Community Transportation Association of America is a membership organization of community transportation programs across America with a website of resources that includes on-line training, accreditation, and certification programs; a marketplace for corporate products; an insurance store; up-to-date transit news; and a link to its programs and initiatives including the National Volunteer Transportation Center.

The National Volunteer Transportation Center includes materials that describe how volunteer driver programs are organized and their risk factors (including liability, exposure, and insurance) as well as a variety of models, case examples, and workbooks. Recent publications include Volunteer Driver Programs, the Hope of the Future (2008), Risk Management (2013), and Volunteer Transportation: A Trilogy of Topics (2014). The website also includes fact sheets, tip sheets, and exercises on such topics as Volunteer Drivers; Volunteer Driver Programs, Test Your Transportation Database, Determine Your Transportation Priorities, and How to Plan a Volunteer Driver Program.

The National Center on Senior Transportation has a goal of increasing transportation options for older adults to support their ability to live independently in their homes and communities. The site offers a variety of resources and publications on such issues as assisted transportation, volunteer transportation, and best practices for senior transportation programs.


Better Options for Older Adults by Helen Kerschner and Joan Harris, Public Roads, Vol. 70, No. 5, Federal Highway Administration, 2007.

Integrating Volunteer Drivers into Regional Community Transportation Coordination Programs: Evidence-Based Practices from Nationwide Programs and Recommendations for the NH Seacoast Region (2008).

Mass Mobility Reports: Volunteer Driver Programs. This Mass Mobility report highlights current volunteer driver programs that are available in Massachusetts and summarizes key considerations for organizations that are developing or implementing their own volunteer driver programs. (2013).

Maximizing Benefits and Addressing Challenges of Volunteer Driver Transportation Programs Transportation Research Board Research Needs Statement (2008).

National Center on Senior Transportation Report on Volunteer Transportation. This report brings together the latest research on liability and profiles of some interesting volunteer driver programs across the nation (2008).

Where to Get Expert Advice

Expert advice regarding volunteer driver programs can be obtained from the following individuals and their organizations:

Helen Kerschner, former President and CEO of the Beverly Foundation and currently Director of the National Volunteer Transportation Center. Dr. Kerschner is the author of this publication, a presenter at conferences and training sessions, and the principal developer of informational and educational materials for the Beverly Foundation and the National Volunteer Transportation Center. kerschner@ctaa.org

Charles Dickson, Associate Director, Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA). Mr. Dickson has extensive experience in the field of community transportation, especially with a specialty of transportation in rural America. dickson@ctaa.org

Virginia Dize, Associate Director of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the National Center on Senior Transportation in Washington, DC. Ms. Dize is coordinator of volunteer driver program demonstration projects. vdize@n4a.org

Mark Evanoff, owner and president of The Alternet Ways Company of San Francisco, California. Mr. Evanoff is the developer of Assisted Rides, a ride scheduling and data management software for volunteer driver programs and provides educational information about volunteer driver program software. mevanoff@alternetrides.com

William Henry, Executive Director, CIMA Volunteers Insurance Service of Woodbridge, Virginia. Mr. Henry is a provider of educational programs related to risk management and is a volunteer driver insurance provider. whenry@cimaworld.com

Elaine Wells, Executive Director of Ride Connection of Portland, Oregon. Ms. Wells is a long-time administrator of one of the largest volunteer transportation programs in the United States, which acts as a brokerage for both volunteer and paid driver programs.  She is an innovative project initiator and successful fundraiser for volunteer transportation. elainew@rideconnection.org

End Notes

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