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Troubling Numbers In Volunteering Rates

By Paul Clolery - February 27, 2014

Statistics released this week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showing volunteering at a 10-year low have some in the industry scratching their heads or backing away from the numbers, including a sponsor of the survey.

According to the BLS, the volunteer rate declined by 1.1 percent to 25.4 percent of the population for the year ending in September 2013. Approximately 62.6 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2012 and September 2013.

The data was collected through a supplement to the September 2013 Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS is a monthly survey of approximately 60,000 households that obtains information on employment and unemployment for the nation’s civilian non-institutional population age 16 and older. Volunteers are defined as persons who did unpaid work (except for expenses) through or for an organization.

The supplement was sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency with a primary focus of fostering volunteerism. In seeking comment on the report, a CNCS spokesman released a statement to The NonProfit Times that didn’t even mention the report.

“Volunteering is a core American value. Our research has found that large numbers of Americans — more than 1 in 4 — regularly volunteer in their communities, and this rate has stayed relatively stable over the past 12 years,” said CNCS Spokeswoman Samantha Jo Warfield. “Volunteers provide enormous social and economic value to our communities and country. By giving back, volunteers gain new skills, expand professional networks, stay connected to their community, and experience physical and mental health benefits. As the federal agency dedicated to this issue, we hope to find ways for all Americans to get involved in service.”

A list of questions regarding the CNCS’ participation in the survey were not answered by Warfield.

The statement is nearly identical to the one released for CNCS CEO Wendy Spencer when the CNCS and National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) report was released recently. That report showed the national volunteer rate continued to climb during 2012, with more than one in four adults volunteering through a nonprofit organization and a total of 64.5 million Americans contributing almost 7.9 billion hours of their time. That report focused on the rosier aspects of volunteer data, such as the value and amount of time increasing.

An email message to Spencer was not answered.

The volunteering statistics seem to be tracking with overall philanthropy numbers that show a shrinking donor pool but those who still donate give more. As an example, participation in large special events declined year-over-year between 2012 and 2013.

Total revenue for the top 30 events in 2013 was $1.667 billion, down $44.2 million, or 2.58 percent, from 2012’s total of $1.711 billion, according to the Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Forum in Rye, N.Y. More than half (17) of the 30 events reported either flat fundraising or increases for their events last year. The 2.58 percent overall loss was driven primarily by three events, which accounted for $62 million less in revenue. American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life was down $27.5 million, Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s Race for the Cure series did $20 million less than 2012, and Komen’s 3-Day Walk series earned $15.5 million less in 2013 than in 2012.

Nathan Dietz is senior research associate at the Center on Nonprofits & Philanthropy of The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. It publishes The Nonprofit Sector in Brief and tracks giving and volunteering. Dietz recently joined the organization from CNCS and was there when the tracking started in 2002.

He said the 1.1 percent decline is the largest from 2006. He explained the volunteering number for the past decade has been plus or minus 0.5 percent except when there was a large spike upward (27.4 percent to 28.8 percent) in 2003 and the big decrease (28.8 percent to 26.7 percent) in 2006.

When it comes to actual hours spent volunteering, “No matter what happens with rate, the total number total tended to be very, very consistent over time,” said Dietz. There was a large increase between 2010 (8.1 billion hours) and 2011 (8.5 billion) otherwise the numbers have been consistent, he said.

Volunteers who gave the fewest number of hours tended to drop out of the picture with the more ardent volunteers picking up the hours, he said. According to the BLS numbers, most volunteers were involved with either one or two organizations — 71.3 percent and 19 percent, respectively. Individuals with higher educational attainment were more likely to volunteer for multiple organizations than were those with less education.

The element of the study most troubling to Dietz, other than the raw number, was the decline in volunteering among educated people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. It plummeted from 42.8 percent in 2009 to 39.8 percent for 2013. “This could be the canary in the coal mine,” he said as an indicator something is very wrong. “That number had been staple a long time and all of a sudden the bottom dropped out. Education is the single best predictor of volunteering. It’s people with a job and a good one,” he said.

According to the BLS statistics, among persons age 25 and older, 39.8 percent of college graduates volunteered, compared with 27.7 percent of persons with some college or an associate’s degree, 16.7 percent of high school graduates, and 9 percent of those with less than a high school diploma. The rate of volunteering was about unchanged for people with less than a high school diploma while the rate declined for persons in all other educational attainment categories.

While the nation’s unemployment, under-employment and those who have quit looking for work numbers remain high, those with good degrees and education tend to have better employment prospects so the employment numbers might not be making the volunteering problem worse.

Among employed persons, 27.7 percent volunteered during the year ending in September 2013, according to the BLS survey results. By comparison, 24.1 percent of unemployed persons and 21.9 percent of those not in the labor force volunteered. Among the employed, part-time workers were more likely than full-time workers to have participated in volunteer activities — 31.7 percent compared with 26.8 percent. The volunteer rate was little changed among unemployed persons but declined for the employed and those not in the labor force.

Government might have something to do with it. As federal and state money is reduced and programs are cut, there are fewer opportunities to volunteer. “Government policies might make it easier or harder for nonprofit organizations to manage their affairs. Funding choices of government might have a downstream effect on how nonprofit uses volunteers,” Dietz said.

Getting them to realize finding and keeping volunteers outside of the political halls of power can be a challenge. “The thing about politicians and volunteers, it’s hard to talk to politicians, especially in Washington, about volunteers unless they have a pronounced do-gooder instinct. Here (Washington, D.C.) they have volunteers coming out of their ears, an endless supply. No matter how badly they treat them there are plenty of people wanting to take their place,” said Dietz.

According to the BLS survey results, the volunteer rates for both men and women (22.2 percent and 28.4 percent, respectively) declined for the year ending in September 2013. Women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics. By age, 35- to 44-year-olds were the most likely to volunteer (30.6 percent). Volunteer rates were lowest among 20- to 24-year-olds (18.5 percent). For persons 45 years and older, the volunteer rate tapered off as age increased. Teens (16- to 19-year-olds) had a volunteer rate of 26.2 percent.

Among major race and ethnicity groups, whites continued to volunteer at a higher rate (27.1 percent) than did blacks (18.5 percent), Asians (19 percent), and Hispanics  (15.5 percent). Of these groups, the volunteer rate fell for whites (by 0.7 percentage) and blacks (by 2.6 percent) in 2013. The volunteer rates for Asians and Hispanics were little changed.

Married persons volunteered at a higher rate (30.7 percent) in 2013 than did those who had never married (20 percent) and those with other marital statuses (20.5 percent). The rates declined over the year for each marital status category. In 2013, the volunteer rate of parents with children under age 18 (32.9 percent) remained higher than the rate for persons without children (22.7 percent). The volunteer rate of persons without children younger than age 18 declined over the year, while the rate for parents was little changed.

BLS survey respondents spent their volunteer hours mainly collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food (10.9 percent), fundraising (10 percent), and tutoring or teaching (9.8 percent). Men and women tended to engage in different main activities. Men who volunteered were most likely to engage in general labor (11.4 percent) or coach, referee, or supervise sports teams (9.9 percent). Female volunteers were most likely to collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (12.5 percent), fundraise (11.5 percent), or tutor or teach (11.4 percent).

The BLS survey questions ask, “Since September 1st of last year, (have you/has) done any volunteer activities through or for an organization? The person is then prompted with “Sometimes people don’t think of activities they do infrequently or activities they do for children’s schools or youth organizations as volunteer activities. Since September 1st of last year, (have you/has he/has she) done any of these types of volunteer activities?”

Because the BLS survey asked for people who volunteered within an organization, the decline might be seen because volunteering is changing. For example, virtual volunteering numbers are not captured and community organizing on a local level might not fit the description offer in the survey.

“There has been an increase in community-oriented helping behaviors,” said Dietz. “Organizations might not be adapting to changes in the supply of volunteers. This opens opportunities for the sector.”

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