Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Declining Volunteer Rates in America - What's it All About?

This week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an article (sorry, only available to subscribers) about some stats that were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics back in February. Despite efforts by the White House, the Corporation for National Service, and many nonprofit groups to boost the rates at which Americans volunteer, the volunteerism rate fell in 2013 to 25.4%, the lowest rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began collecting this data, back in 2002.

While one might think that an improving job market might bring the volunteerism rate down - more people working could mean fewer people available for volunteering - that is not the case. The volunteerism rate peaked in the early 2000s, when the jobless rate was higher than it is now. (Click here for an article that summarizes some of the key statistics).

The Chronicle of Philanthropy's article suggests, among other things, that the volunteerism rate is low because many nonprofits still have not covered from the recent economic downturn, and they don't have the capacity (staff, funding, etc.) to manage lots of volunteers.

As someone who volunteers regularly (I volunteer at a hospital once per week, and I help with several committees and boards), I know that it takes a lot of time and effort to manage and train volunteers. And this requires money, as well. But I doubt that is the whole story. What else could be going on here?
  • Are people volunteering in different ways, e.g. internet research, starting online petitions, etc.? (and, is that really meeting unmet needs in the community?)
  • Did people used to use volunteerism as a way to connect with others, make friends, etc... but now social networking has taken this place of that?
  • How might this decline in volunteerism relate to any declines in things like membership to religious organizations (churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.)?
It is a disappointing trend, to be sure. While it costs nonprofits money to manage volunteers, it also costs them money not to have them. At many nonprofits, volunteers do things that would require staff to replace them. In addition, those who do not volunteer are missing out on so much - connections with others in the community, the satisfaction of a job that is much-needed and well done, and the joy and fun that can come from giving to others.

How can we turn the tide?

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