News and analysis
December 17, 2014

Americans’ Engagement With Organizations Wanes, Report Says

A new federal report shows declines in 16 of 20 indicators of civic health, including falling rates of volunteerism and engagement with community organizations and flagging trust in public institutions.

In 2013, slightly more than 36 percent of American adults were involved in school, civic, recreational, religious, or other type of organizations, a nearly 3-percent drop compared with 2011, according to the "Volunteering and Civic Life in America" report. Americans’ confidence in the media dropped 7 points, to 55 percent, in the same two-year span, while confidence in public schools dropped 3.5 points, to 84.5 percent.

The report, released this week by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship, provides an in-depth look at volunteerism and civic engagement in the United States. In 2013, there were one- or two-year declines in 16 of 20 civic-health indicators.

"The picture it paints is civic engagement is facing some headwind," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship.

Among the most notable change was a decline in overall volunteerism, a trend reflected in statistics released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics earlier this year. According to that source, the volunteerism rate fell to 25.4 percent in 2013, the lowest level since the data collection began in 2002. Last year, 62.6 million Americans volunteered, 2 million fewer than in 2012.

"You are talking about a lot fewer services being provided, needs potentially not being met," Mr. Zherka said. "That should be cause for concern, especially if we see a slight downward trend over time. All the organizations and federal agencies who care about volunteering should care about that number."

Internal capacity at nonprofits is a factor, he said.

"One of the things we have heard from a lot of our partners around the country is, it has not been easy to hire the people who manage the volunteers," Mr. Zherka said. "So for some of these organizations and institutions, their volunteer numbers are going down because their staff capacity has gone down."

Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, acknowledged the decline while also noting that the share of Americans who participate in formal volunteer activities through organizations has remained steady, at about one in four, for many years. She said she is proud of that number, while pointing out that 138 million American adults, or 62.5 percent, reported being involved in informal volunteer activities 2013, such as helping neighbors and watching over children.

"Not everyone wants to be formally connected," Ms. Spencer said. "We welcome spontaneous volunteerism."

In total, American volunteers put in 7.7 billion hours in 2013. The new report values the work hours at nearly $173-billion, a calculation based on the Independent Sector’s valuation of a volunteer hour.

Not all Americans can give money to charity, but they give their time, Ms. Spencer said.

"My goal would be for all Americans to try volunteering," Ms. Spencer said. "But don’t just volunteer to volunteer — select something you are passionate about."

Greg Baldwin, president of the nonprofit online volunteer group VolunteerMatch, said the nonprofit sector and its ranks of volunteers are just as vulnerable to economic swings as other sectors. It is a myth that volunteers organize and engage without any structures in place; volunteerism requires strategy, leadership, and resources, he said.

"We still want to believe that the nonprofit sector is indifferent to a poor economy, or even the antidote — the thing that saves us," Mr. Baldwin said. "Strong volunteer programs are coordinated by healthy, strong organizations that are well resourced. They create opportunities for people to get involved."

Liz Hamburg, chief executive of the Taproot Foundation, which is dedicated to organizing and deploying skilled volunteers, said that despite the decline in the volunteerism rate, there is no shortage of Americans looking to give their time.

"Our experience has been that it is actually going up," Ms. Hamburg said. "What we are seeing in the pro bono world is that there are millions of people signing up, and it is the nonprofits who are having a tougher time saying, ‘Yes, we want to take on a pro bono volunteer.’ "

According to the report, Utah was the state with the highest rate of volunteering through an organization, at 44.6 percent. It was followed by Idaho, at 36.4 percent, and Minnesota, at 36.3 percent. At the bottom of the list was Louisiana, at 17.8 percent.

The most active large city was Minneapolis-St. Paul, with a volunteer rate of 35.8 percent, followed by Salt Lake City, at 35.1 percent, and Rochester, at 34.9 percent.

Nearly one third of Americans between the ages of 35 and 44 participated in a formal volunteer activity in 2013, the report found, the highest rate of any age group. Those between the ages of 65 and 74 clocked the most volunteer time — a median of 92 hours.

Women volunteered at rates higher than men, 28.4 percent to 22.2 percent, according to the report. Parents with underage children volunteered at a rate of 32 percent, eclipsing the overall rate despite busy schedules. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in college volunteered at a rate of 26.7 percent, almost twice that of young adults not enrolled in college.

"A big part of what we see in data from last year, and in the past number of years, is there is a huge increase in people who are civically engaged after they come out of college," Mr. Zherka said. "People with college degrees and higher are much more engaged civically than those without college degrees."

Send an e-mail to Megan O'Neil.