News and analysis
December 08, 2015

Volunteerism Rate Inches Downward to New Low

Adults in the United States volunteered in 2014 at the lowest rate since the federal government began collecting such data 13 years ago.

One in four Americans, or 25.3 percent, volunteered with an organization last year, according to the annual "Volunteering and Civic Life in America" report. Though the rate is down only slightly from 25.4 percent in 2013, it has been declining for the past decade.

In total, Americans volunteered 8 billion hours in 2014, worth $184 billion, according the average value of a volunteer hour as calculated by Independent Sector.

The report, published Tuesday by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship, provides an annual snapshot of civic engagement and volunteerism in the United States.

It draws on data that the Bureau of Labor Statics began gathering on an annual basis in 2002.

The 2013 national rate of volunteerism was the previous all-time low. The highest rate was 28.8 percent, recorded in 2003, 2004, and 2005.

Officials at the two organizations that produced the report described the change in the national rate from 2013 to 2014 as negligible.

"We still have slightly over one in four Americans volunteering," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship. "It is a relatively high rate. It ought to be higher. We need more people to volunteer."

The culture of volunteering in the United States is something that should be celebrated, officials at the two groups said.

"I can’t think of anything that we as Americans contribute collectively 8 billion hours to that makes this kind of an impact," said Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

In addition to the one in four Americans who volunteer formally through organizations, two-thirds volunteer informally through activities such as giving neighbors rides to medical appointments and providing child care, Ms. Spencer said.

The benefits of volunteering are numerous, she said, starting with the fact that volunteers are twice as likely as nonvolunteers to donate to charities.

Call to Action

Ms. Spencer called on groups to use the report to fine-tune their volunteer programs. Older Americans logged the most hours, she pointed out, and nonprofits should ask them about their interests, skills, and how they hope to contribute.

"If we don’t ask those questions of volunteers I think we become too prescriptive as volunteer managers," Ms. Spencer said. "We are trying to drive the train, and that sometimes can turn off our baby boomers."

Liz Hamburg, chief executive of the Taproot Foundation, which connects skilled volunteers with opportunities, said she and her colleagues are seeing growth in pro bono work among professionals. In 2015, Taproot has engaged 4,000 volunteers, up from 2,900 the previous year.

"We have seen an expanded interest in donating professional skills, from individuals as well as companies across the country," Ms. Hamburg said.

Greg Baldwin, president of the San Francisco-based VolunteerMatch, which brings together volunteers and nonprofits, said the number of connections made on his website increased 24 percent during the last 12 months. Website traffic increased 11 percent to almost 15 million visits this year, and he and his colleagues registered 8,900 new nonprofits.

The tepid volunteerism rate is not about a lack of willing volunteers, he said, but about nonprofits’ ability to attract, train, and retain them.

“Successfully engaging volunteers has never been easy, but in our busy world it just keeps getting harder,” Mr. Baldwin said. “To succeed you need strong leadership, vision and support." 

According to the new report, Americans volunteered most frequently with religious groups, education or youth-services groups, and social or community groups.

Women volunteered more than men, at rates of 28.8 percent and 22.5 percent, respectively.

Individuals 35 to 44 years old, or members of Generation X, had the highest rate of volunteerism, at 29.8 percent.

Nearly one third of parents volunteered with an organization in 2014, according to the study. Roughly one in five millennials, ages 16 to 32, volunteered. College students were roughly twice as active as their peers not enrolled in postsecondary educational institutions, volunteering at a rate of 26.6 percent.

As usual, Utah was the state with the highest volunteerism rate. It was followed by Idaho, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kansas.

The metropolitan area with the most volunteer-minded population was Salt Lake City. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Rochester rounded out the top five.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include comments from Greg Baldwin of VolunteerMatch.