Jump In Employment Putting Pressure On Volunteering Rates

February 2, 2015       Patrick Sullivan      

Falling unemployment is good news for everyone, except perhaps for nonprofits that rely on volunteers. The unemployment rate has dropped more than two full percentage points since the height of the Great Recession in 2010, and in 2013 sat at 7.4 percent. It dropped even further this past December to 5.6 percent.

Also sinking is the volunteer rate, which has declined since 2011 to its lowest point since the federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) began tracking it.

A charting of unemployment and volunteer rates by The NonProfit Times shows correlation between the two in most but not all years. The second-biggest drop in unemployment since 2002, from 5.1 percent in 2005 to 4.6 percent in 2006, was mirrored by a large drop in volunteering, from 28.8 percent to 26.7 percent.

Unemployment held steady in 2007 while the volunteer rate dropped again by half of a percentage point to 26.2 percent. The volunteer rate increased slightly, from 26.2 percent to 26.4 percent, when unemployment jumped to 5.8 percent in 2008. The unemployment rate surged from 5.8 percent in 2008 to 9.3 percent in 2009, and the volunteer rate again nudged upward, from 26.4 percent to 26.8 percent. Unemployment increased again in 2010 to 9.6 percent, and the volunteer rate declined to 26.3 percent. Both unemployment and volunteering have been declining since 2010.

With the economy finally coming back and the unemployment rate falling, you might think that because people are going back to work they have less time to volunteer. Shari Tishman at VolunteerMatch would say you’re wrong.

“The limiting factor is not the volunteers themselves, it’s the capacity of nonprofits to engage and support volunteers,” said Tishman, director of engagement for the San Francisco-based organization. “In a down economy, nonprofits are not able to do that. With a stronger nonprofit sector, there’s a higher volunteer rate.”

The rate of volunteering fell from 26.5 percent in 2012 to 25.4 percent in 2013, while the absolute number of volunteers went from 64.5 million to 62.6 million. “There was a slight dip this year, but volunteering remains consistently strong. It’s always about one out of four Americans,” said CNCS Spokeswoman Samantha Jo Warfield.

The BLS has only been tracking volunteering statistics since 2002, when it included the Volunteering in the United States supplement with the Current Population Survey (CPS). Before 2002, the BLS included a volunteering supplement in its 1989 and 1974 surveys, but did not regularly compile volunteering statistics. Earlier numbers are available from the Washington, D.C.-based organization Independent Sector, but due to differences in methodology and sample size this article will focus on the BLS and CNCS statistics.

According to Nathan Dietz, senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., the volunteer rate saw its biggest changes in 2003 and 2006, in addition to 2013. Between 2006 and 2012, he said, “the rate bounces around between 26 and 27 percent until 2013. That’s the type of pattern I expect to see except for this big change.”

Dietz said he’s not sure what caused the big drop in 2013, and that it surprised him. He said he expected a small increase before the BLS released the 2013 statistics. “What you see in 2013 is consistent with the idea that there might be something new that’s happening. We don’t know for sure what that is and that’s why we’re looking to 2014 (numbers) with such anticipation,” he said.

He speculated that some volunteers might feel their chosen nonprofits are stable and back on their feet after the Great Recession, and as a result have cut their service back. “For the first time, it looks like the unemployment rate might be headed back down,” Dietz said. “That means the crisis is ending, and what better time for a committed volunteer to bow out?”

Tishman said that when nonprofit funding declines, as it often does in a slow economy when less government funding is available, volunteer engagement programs are some of the first to go. “There’s this huge fallacy that volunteering is free (for an organization). It’s not,” she said. “It takes time, resources, staff, money. When nonprofits are not getting as much funding, they’re not able to engage volunteers.”

The drop in the formal volunteer rate in 2013 has more to do with lagging effects of the Great Recession than it does with a stronger economy, Tishman believes. She said an economic recovery, just like an economic recession, “takes a little while to filter down” into the nonprofit sector. “What we saw was that the height of the recession didn’t impact the nonprofit sector until a little later, and didn’t impact the volunteer rate. We’re seeing the effects of the recession but we’ll see a significant increase,” she said.

Warfield doesn’t think that more people working means fewer people having time to volunteer. “I think the idea of not having time to volunteer is an interesting one. If you were to guess who volunteers the most, you might guess someone retired, or a young person with a lot of time on their hands,” said Warfield. “But the individuals who volunteer the most are working mothers. The more connections you have, the more likely you’re asked to volunteer.”

Somewhat of a contradiction with the statistical swings is that overall, employed people volunteer at a higher rate than the unemployed and those not in the workforce, according to BLS statistics. Some 27.5 percent of employed adults volunteered in 2013, compared to 24.1 percent of unemployed persons and 21.9 percent of those not in the labor force.

Dietz didn’t rule out the possibility that the drop in volunteering was directly related to people going back to work. He said the most telling metric is the drop in volunteer hours, from 7.89 billion total hours and 32.4 hours per resident in 2012 to 7.67 billion total and 32.1 per resident in 2013. “It could be that it was the delayed impact of the recession. If that’s what it was, people who had been volunteering a lot probably felt like enough was enough and either cut down or (stopped),” he said. “If that’s what happened, maybe the recession had something to do with it.”

Dietz believes there could be a “significant association” between unemployment and volunteering at a state or major metropolitan regional level. “But the thing about that is that has a lot to do with population density, especially at a state level,” he said.

“Volunteer rates tend to be lower in densely populated states,” said Dietz. New Jersey, one of the most densely populated states, ranked 45th in 2013 in volunteering, while Idaho, more than 60 times less densely populated, ranked second. Utah, with a sparse population and low unemployment rate, had the highest volunteer rate.

Dietz said it’s a “numbers game” in big cities. “You have people who are disconnected from everything — the paid workforce, the volunteer workforce — because they’re disconnected from opportunity to get involved,” he said.

New York City, the largest city in the United States and the most densely populated among large cities, ranked second-to-last in volunteer rate in 2013. Only Miami ranked lower than New York City.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed help their neighbors, so-called informal volunteering, according to the federal agencies. Some 62.5 percent of Americans did favors for their neighbors in 2013, according to the CPS. Warfield said that number is “pretty consistent” with prior years. But that number, too, has declined recently. The rate of informal volunteering in 2011 was 65.1 percent.

The CPS first included questions regarding informal volunteering in 2009, and again in 2010, 2011 and 2013. War­field said questions on informal volun­teer­ing are included every other year since 2011.

Ogden, Utah resident Matt Tribe used his $100 Olive Garden all-you-can-eat pasta pass to feed homeless people in northern Utah in September and October of last year. “What was I going to do with all this pasta? I thought it would be cool to take it to people,” he said.

“Random Acts of Pasta” was born. Tribe’s effort was temporary and it was neither a nonprofit nor a formal relationship with a nonprofit. He documented his month-long informal volunteering stint, and the resulting video has been viewed more than 845,000 times on YouTube.

Tribe’s “Random Acts of Pasta” is an example of informal volunteering, but he saw other examples of informal volunteering while he was handing out meals. “One of the first people I gave to, the first thing she told me was she was going to share (the meal) with her friend. When that happened it really took me aback,” he said. “She had nothing but her first thought was to give it to someone else. Her attitude was, ‘I know what it’s like to be hungry, so let me share this.’”

Dietz said that informal volunteering is not constrained by organizational funding and is therefore more self-directed. While formal volunteering is driven by the needs of a nonprofit, informal volunteering is driven by the needs of the community.

“One thought is when times are bad, in neighborhoods with a lot of community spirit, people will help each other more. You don’t see that very strongly when it comes to formal volunteering through an organization. That’s driven by what the organization needs or wants,” Dietz said. NPT