July 27, 2008

26% of Americans Volunteer, New Study Finds

Charities need to do a better job keeping their volunteers engaged and loyal, say the authors of a new report released today by the federal government. The report, from the Corporation for National and Community Service, says that more than one out of every three people who had volunteered in 2006 had not done so again in 2007.

David Eisner, who heads the Corporation for National and Community Service, says nonprofit groups ought to be more strategic in the ways they recruit, manage, and retain volunteers.

“We need to dive down into these numbers and learn why some folks have lower or higher retention and then spread best practices, like better demonstrating to volunteers the impact of their service,” Mr. Eisner says. (To learn more about steps charities can take to keep their volunteers loyal, see Taking the Long View, an article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy archive.)

Traveling to Volunteer Spots

Despite the turnover in volunteers, last year’s volunteering rates remained relatively steady after a 6-percent decline in total volunteers from 2005 to 2006.

Last year, 60.8 million people, or about 26 percent of Americans age 16 or older, performed unpaid work for a nonprofit organization, the report says.

And the report reveals some other promising signs, too, such as a growing number of volunteers who dedicate substantial time to service. Last year, the proportion of volunteers donating more than 100 hours annually was 34 percent, the highest level since 2002.

The report analyzes data culled from annual Census Bureau surveys of roughly 60,000 households around the country. It contains six years of data on volunteering, rankings of states and cities, and volunteer trends and demographic information broken down by state and for 162 large and mid-sized cities.

Among the report’s findings:

People who live in mid-sized American cities are more likely to volunteer than residents of big cities. The average volunteer rate for mid-sized cities for 2004 to 2007 was nearly 30 percent, three percentage points higher than the average for big cities. College towns are hot spots for volunteering. College towns tend to be home not only to many students with strong volunteering habits, but also a lot of highly educated adults. People who graduate from college and seek higher degrees tend to volunteer more than others, research has found. The three top mid-sized cities for volunteer rates — Provo, Utah (64 percent); Iowa City (45 percent); and Madison, Wisc. (42 percent) — are all college towns. Utah had the highest volunteering rate in the nation, almost 44 percent, while California had the largest total number of volunteers, 6.3 million. While volunteer rates in most states stayed the same or dipped slightly from 2006 to 2007, volunteering grew in other states such as Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota. People are traveling long distances to volunteer. More than 3.7 million Americans, about 6 percent of all volunteers, worked without pay for charitable causes at least 120 miles from their homes last year, including 1.1 million people who traveled overseas. The trend is especially pronounced in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina. At least one-quarter of Mississippi’s volunteers and one-fifth of Louisiana’s volunteers last year were out-of-state residents. Women volunteer more than men, and working women have the highest volunteer rate. About 29 percent of women volunteered last year, compared with roughly 23 percent of men. Women with children and women who work have higher volunteer rates than other women.

These findings about working women and mothers along with newly analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey belie a commonly held notion about volunteering: People with more time on their hands volunteer more often.

“A deep misconception is that people are more likely to volunteer when they have more leisure time,” Mr. Eisner says. “It is the other way around.”

The report says that 29 percent of people aged 25 to 55 who volunteer say that on a typical day they also spend time on child care, while only 19 percent of those who do not volunteer report child-care duties.

The report also notes a big difference between volunteers and non-volunteers in how much television they watch. In a typical week, volunteers spend about 15 hours watching television, while people who don’t volunteer watch an average of 23 hours.

“People who choose not to give one hour a week to volunteer usually spend at least eight hours more a week watching television, so this is not a replacement equation,” says Mr. Eisner. He says that people with fewer connections, through their neighborhood or place of work, for example, are less likely to feel engaged in their communities and less likely to be asked to volunteer.

Robert Grimm, Jr., the Corporation for National and Community Service’s director of research and policy development, says charities need to reach out to people they might otherwise overlook and, at the same time, make sure they are providing quality opportunities that people will want to make time for.

Local Data

In conjunction with issuing the report, the Corporation for National and Community Service is introducing an interactive Web site with access to all the report’s data and links to tools and training opportunities to help cities and charities and others who manage volunteers strengthen their recruitment and retention strategies. The site also includes a feature where people can plug in their charitable interests and their zip code to find volunteering opportunities in their area.

Mr. Grimm says municipal and nonprofit leaders can use the Web site to obtain specific information about their region.

For example, he says, charity officials in Charlotte, N.C. can look at the demographic data in their city and see high rates of volunteering among young people and low rates among older residents.

“They can set out a plan to reach out to an undertapped market — older people — and figure out how to maximize their local resources,” Mr. Grimm says. “Volunteering is so local and being able to look at trends and demographics city-to-city will help communities and nonprofits figure out their best strategies.”