Warning: US Volunteerism at a Decade Low!

The rate of volunteerism in America fell to the lowest level in a decade, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report Volunteering in the United States — 2013.  This appears part of a downward trend.

Nonprofit organizations should find this trend alarming for a number of reasons, including:

Volunteers provide an essential labor pool. Approximately 62.6 million (25.4 percent) Americans volunteered at least once between September 2012 and September 2013.

The median volunteer spent 50 hours on volunteer activities during the study period. These significant volunteer hours mean that volunteers are a valuable part of the nonprofit labor force. Declining volunteerism rates mean charities will either have to limit services, discontinue certain activities, or pay for employees to perform the tasks formerly handled by volunteers.

Volunteers serve as ambassadors. Individuals who volunteer usually act as ambassadors for the organization. They obviously have a high-degree of interest in the organization, which is why they volunteer with it.

Through volunteer experiences, provided they are good ones, the volunteers will become more engaged with the organization and more passionate about its work. They will speak of the organization with family and friends. When they do, it will be in a positive, passionate tone. This word-of-mouth promotion will help your organization to attract additional volunteer and donor support.

Volunteers are more likely to donate. The more engaged an individual is with his community, the more likely he is to volunteer and contribute money to nonprofit organizations. The more points of connection there are between an individual and a particular nonprofit organization, the more likely that individual is to give, give often, and give generously to that organization, as I point out in my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing.

Volunteerism is an important point of connection. This phenomenon is explained, in part, by the Social Capital Theory popularized by Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone.

Volunteers are more likely to make planned gifts. Consider what researcher Russell James, JD, PhD, CFP reports in his book, American Charitable Bequest Demographics (1992-2012):

Among those with [estate] planning documents, those who both volunteer and give ($500+) are dramatically more likely to plan a charitable estate gift than those who only volunteer or only give ($500+). Those who only volunteer, plan charitable estate gifts at approximately the same rate as those who only give.”

Graph from American Charitable Bequest Demographics (1992-2012) by Russell James.

Graph from American Charitable Bequest Demographics (1992-2012) by Russell James.

Furthermore, those who only volunteer or only donate ($500+) are more than twice as likely to make a legacy gift than those who do neither.

For a free electronic copy of James’ book, subscribe to this blog site in the right-hand column. You’ll receive an email confirmation of your subscription that will contain a link to the book.

Clearly, the steady decline in volunteerism represents a serious problem for the nonprofit sector.

So, why is volunteerism on the decline? Unfortunately, the reasons for the decline are unclear. However, the report contains some clues.

Employed individuals are more likely to volunteer than unemployed folks. With the Great Recession, unemployment in the US spiked. Today, while the unemployment rate appears to be improving, the facts are that many Americans have simply dropped out of the workforce or are under-employed. As the health of the economy improves and as true employment rates improve, we might see a return to more robust rates of volunteerism.

Another issue involves the steady decline in religious affiliation in the US. The organizations most likely to attract volunteers are religious organizations (33 percent). If Americans are less likely to have a religious affiliation, they will obviously be less likely to volunteer for a religious organization and, perhaps, less likely to volunteer at all.

Nonprofit organizations also need to look inward. Are charities really doing everything they can to recruit volunteers and ensure those individuals have a positive, worthwhile experience? This is essential.

The study found that “40.8 percent of volunteers became involved with their main organization after being asked to volunteer.” If you want more volunteers, you need to recruit them.

Giving people the opportunity to volunteer is a great way to engage them. It gives them a chance to see how your organization really works (hopefully a good thing). It makes them feel more attached to your organization.

Identifying meaningful volunteer opportunities, recruiting volunteers, managing volunteers, and ensuring they have a worthwhile experience are not easy tasks. However, making the effort can have a significant positive impact for your organization and the nonprofit sector in general.

As a sector, we would be wise to address the negative volunteerism-trend and develop strategies for reversing it. I thank Stephen F. Schatz, CFRE, one of my readers, for bringing this report to my attention so we can have a discussion about it here.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

UPDATE (March 3, 2014): For my Canadian readers and those interested in what’s going on in Canada, the folks at Volunteer Canada were kind enough to point me to some interesting information about volunteerism in Canada. While the material will not allow for an easy apples-to-apples comparison with volunteerism rates in the US, it nevertheless provides worthwhile (though somewhat dated) information. For more information, please click here. I invite my readers in other countries to provide links to their nation’s volunteerism reports. Thank you Volunteer Canada!

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4 Comments to “Warning: US Volunteerism at a Decade Low!”

  1. Michael,

    I definitely agree with you that the nonprofit sector needs to address this downward trend of volunteering. Volunteers are just as important to our organizations as our donors, and as you correctly pointed out, volunteers are often our most loyal donors.

    The surprising statistic that you point out is that the high unemployment rate is one of the causes of this drop. Over the past several years, it has been suggested by a number of groups that work with the unemployed that volunteering can lead to jobs. For those seeking work in the nonprofit sector, volunteering in a meaningful manner is a way to get one’s foot in the door with an organization. Volunteering can add value to a resume by showing HR Directors that one is not just sitting at home watching TV. Volunteer coordinators are often very willing to act as a reference for those applying for work. Finally, volunteering can provide a much needed break for those who who spend their time filling out online applications and writing cover letter. In this time of high unemployment, volunteering should be higher.

    • Richard, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Volunteerism is indeed a wonderful way for people to gain valuable experience while helping an organization that they care about. Unfortunately, many unemployed folks do not take advantage of this opportunity.

      Among the employed, 27.7 percent volunteer.

      Among the unemployed, 24.1 percent volunteer.

      Among those not in the labor force, 21.9 percent volunteer.

      Interestingly, part-time workers are more likely (31.7 percent) than full-time workers (26.8 percent) to volunteer.

      While we know the statistics, we do not know why the stats are what they are.

  2. This is bad news, at a time when the over 55 population is at an all time high. In this economy more people are available to volunteer since they aren’t working: record low workforce participation, and highest post recession unemployment rates, record high disability rates. And young people who cannot find jobs in the current economy, or can only find part time jobs could at least get some experience volunteering. It doesn’t make sense to me that people who work are the ones most likely to volunteer, while those who are unburdened with jobs do not. Would love to see a report analyzing that behavior.

    • Steve, thank you for commenting and, again, for suggesting this topic. One would think that the more time folks have, the more likely they would be to volunteer. In other words, those not working would be the most likely to volunteer with full-time workers being the least likely. However, as I mentioned in my response to Richard (above), that’s not the case, with the exception of full-time v. part-time workers. Unfortunately, while we know the statistics, we don’t know why this behavior is what it is. For my part, I’m coming up short even trying to speculate. It’s definitely a puzzle.

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