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Volunteers Hiding In Plain Sight

By Patrick Sullivan and Paul Clolery - April 1, 2014

Drivers were marooned on Atlanta highways when the city was paralyzed by snow this past February. One stranded motorist created a Facebook group asking others what they needed. According to Tracy Hoover, president of Atlanta-based Points of Light, thousands of people soon posted their needs for blankets, gasoline, food and water.

Eventually the SnowedOutAtlanta group grew beyond capacity and split into seven regional groups, each with between 300 and 1,200 of members. “At that moment, the government couldn’t help,” said Hoover. “But an individual identified a problem and used her social network to create an immediate response that in that moment was more effective.”

Is that volunteering? The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) would probably say no and, “I’m not sure when asked (the page creator) would say she was volunteering,” said Hoover.

So, where are all of the volunteers? According to a February report by the BLS, volunteering is at a 10-year ebb. The rate of volunteering declined 1.1 percent to 25.4 percent of the population. Roughly 62.6 million people volunteered through or for an organization between September 2012 and September 2013.

While Hoover acknowledged that traditional volunteering is down, “There has been a real explosion in people activating in new and different ways like online, ways that allow them to use their skills in new ways that aren’t captured in the (BLS) report. It’s a very bad thing when there’s a slowdown, but it’s incredibly encouraging when individuals are using their full suite of assets. If I care about education, I might fund a classroom project through DonorsChoose.org. I might volunteer for a pro bono project, or volunteer through my company.”

BLS released the numbers as a supplement to its September 2013 Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of about 60,000 households on employment and unemployment in the country’s civilian non-institutional population age 16 and older. Volunteers are people who did unpaid work (except for expenses) for or through an organization.

“I think it’s very troubling to see any decline, particularly when there’s so much evidence about how citizen response to a public problem can be incredibly effective,” said Hoover. “The thing I’m not troubled about, or I do not read in these statistics, is any lessening in the impulse to serve. Our experience in working with millions of volunteers verifies that the impulse to help is alive and well, and is, I think, as strong as the need for help.”

Hoover and others contend that the nature of volunteering is changing enough that the statistics and even nonprofit managers can’t keep up. “I think we might not have evolved as quickly as the population has demanded,” said Hoover. “We know millennials are one of the most active generations (of volunteers) and they have an inclination to volunteer. Yet, in the BLS survey they seem to be underrepresented. I think equipping nonprofits to more effectively engage millennials particularly, but really each of us, in a way that taps into our assets to create change in the most natural and effective way is really important.”

The rate of volunteering for those aged 16 to 24 declined from 22.6 percent in the September 2012 survey to 21.8 percent in 2013.

Nathan Dietz is a 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 survey sponsor Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and was there when the tracking started in 2002.

He said the 1.1 percent decline is the largest since 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.

In seeking comment on the report for a web story when the news broke, 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.”

Warfield later said she could not pinpoint the source of the volunteering slump. “The nature of the questions and limitation regarding what is asked do not allow CNCS to identify causes or factors related to increases or decreases in the rate, though CNCS remains committed to finding ways for all Americans to get involved in service,” she said. “However, over the last 12 years, the rate has appeared relatively stable with small fluctuations each year.”

The survey is administered during the month of September, said Warfield. CNCS paid for the supplemental volunteering survey. “(The questions) were developed and reviewed through cognitive testing prior to use by the US Census and the BLS for length, burden, appropriateness etc.,” said Warfield.

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.

“We’re seeing effects of a continued high unemployment rate,” said Shari Ilsen, director of engagement at VolunteerMatch in San Francisco, an organization that matches nonprofits’ volunteer opportunities with individual and corporate volunteers. Despite the decrease, Ilsen isn’t worried. “It all makes sense to me. The decline is just a little blip. I’m sure we’ll see similar dips and rises (in the future), and there are still millions of people volunteering and millions more looking for ways to volunteer.”

When it comes to actual hours spent volunteering, “No matter what happens with the 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 greater. 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 stable 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 unchanged for people with less than a high school diploma while the rate declined for persons in all other educational attainment categories.

“Year-over-year, we’ve noticed a decline (in volunteering numbers) in the past five years,” said Tanisha Smith, national director of volunteer services for Volunteers of America (VoA), based in Alexandria, Va. “I think that may be normal and is certainly in consideration of the economy. People think with the economy down and people unemployed, there’s more opportunities to volunteer, but people are looking for jobs and want to be able to work.”

Smith said the decline in young volunteers is not surprising, considering many of that cohort would be college students. “(College students) were once a population that may have been able to more freely volunteer,” she said. Now, with the rising cost of tuition, more may be working. “They’re looking for ways to cover the cost of school and expenses,” she said.

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.

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 the 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 anyone in the household) 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.

“I think we’re seeing a shift in the nature of volunteering,” said Ilsen. “VolunteerMatch is responding to that shift by promoting virtual volunteers, matching skills and helping to encourage people to look at volunteering as more integrated into their lives, something that becomes who they are instead of what they do. More and more, people want the opportunity to volunteer from anywhere, and putting in that filter (for virtual volunteering) was really important.” As of early March, there were more than 4,300 virtual volunteering opportunities on VolunteerMatch.

Ilsen said the most important way to increase volunteering for your organization is to think strategically. “The first step is mindful planning,” she said. “Come up with how volunteers can help first, and make sure it aligns with your goals and mission because then you’ll get staff buy-in and resources.”

Thinking strategically extends to the volunteers as well, said Ilsen. “Think about the type of person you want to engage. Who do you need, who do you want? Reach out and tell them what benefits they can provide you and you can provide them,” she said.

“We’re all seeing a lot of increase in skill-based volunteering,” said Hoover. “It’s this desire to be as effective as possible. If I have a particular skill, it might be a higher-leveraged service.”

Don’t forget about the volunteers you already have. Stewarding volunteers is similar to stewarding donors. “Make sure they’re appreciated, show them their impact and say thank you over the phone or in person,” said Ilsen. “Give them ownership. Let them know how they can become more involved. Giving volunteers more responsibility is a great way to keep them engaged.”

People are still willing to help, said VoA’s Smith, “but you have to customize the ask and the task. Tap into passion. The overall decline is something we need to be aware of in the volunteer sector and figure out ways to engage people in the work we do, connect to our mission or cause and (enable them) to give, whether that is of their time or financially.”  NPT

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