Young Adults Fueled Spike In Volunteers

July 28, 2009       Mark Hrywna      

Led by teens and young adults accounting for almost half the increase, about a million more people volunteered last year, according to an annual report on volunteering in the United States. Nonprofits also expect to continue their increased use of volunteers this year.

The Corporation for National and Community Service’s (CNCS) Volunteering in America reports that 37 percent of nonprofits increased the number of volunteers they used between September and March and 48 percent expect to continue to increase their use in the coming year.

The report estimates that 61.8 million Americans volunteered last year, about a million more than the previous year, and more than a quarter of the U.S. population. Volunteers are persons age 16 or older who serve through or with an organization without pay at any point during a 12-month period from September one year to September the next year.

Of the one million additional volunteers in 2008, about 441,000 were between the ages of 16 and 24, up from 7.8 million to 8.24 million and boosting their volunteering rate from 20.88 percent to 21.9 percent.

Overall, the nation’s volunteering rate was about 26.4 percent, led once again last year by the Midwest, 30.2 percent, and specifically Utah, 43.5 percent. California accounted for the largest number of volunteers in the U.S., with a total 7.1 million; about 12 percent of the nation’s total. More than a third of volunteers did so through faith-based organizations.

A historic drop in donations to charity last year would seem to indicate that people are giving their time if not their financial resources, said Alan Solomont, chairman of the board of CNCS. “Traditional volunteering remained relatively stable, but what we call informal volunteering, neighbors coming together to solve a community’s problems…suggests an emerging trend, one we’re trying to foster,” he said.

The report indicated an increase in “neighborhood engagement levels” of 31 percent (the number of people who worked with neighbors to fix a community problem) and a 17-percent spike in the number of people who attended community meetings. Volunteer rates were extremely high after Sept. 11, 2001, but neighborhood engagement has spiked this year after the corporation began tracking it three years ago.

Online applications to AmeriCorps have seen an increase from 46,000 to 146,000 during the same eight-month period a year ago, Solomont said. “This generation wants to be part of something bigger than themselves,” he said.

Despite enormous spikes in applications to volunteer programs like AmeriCorps, the one million more volunteers represent an overall increase of only about 1.6 percent. The report, however, suggests that volunteer rates could have dropped given the circumstances. “Previous research indicates that a concurrent decrease in volunteering rates could occur during a time of economic recession, especially when there are decreases in home ownership and increases in unemployment rates,” according to the report.

Employment and home ownership are among the predictors of whether someone volunteers, according to Robert Grimm, director of the Office and Research and Policy Development at CNCS. Often people think volunteering is about time, he said, but volunteering is something people make time for rather than having extra time to serve the community.

“We’re seeing some dramatic volunteer increases in areas experiencing the brunt of economic challenges, perhaps indicating a ‘compassion boom,’” Grimm said, in places hit hard by the recession, like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and New Jersey.

The president’s call for public service has helped, as it has in the past when presidents have urged Americans to serve, Solomont said, adding that people who lost their jobs may volunteer because they want to be helpful or are looking to develop new skills or new careers.

The boost in interest might be a result of the weak job market, but the younger generation also is more interested in service than other generations, Solomont said. Volunteering rates among young adults dropped off significantly after the 1970s, he said, but current youngsters grew up in schools that were more likely to have service learning programs than in the past, starting young people “on a path of community service much earlier than before. Young people serving is reflective of their earlier service learning experience.”

The corporation’s report can be used as a tool for anyone who works with volunteers to develop effective strategies for recruiting and using volunteers, said Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “While [the report] doesn’t reflect volunteer trends during our administration, it does contain a lot of information” about how to expand opportunities and solve problems, she said.

Solomont hopes mayors and governors around the nation will examine the study and employ strategies for using volunteers to help solve local problems. “We need to make service a way of life for all Americans,” he said.

The nearly 62 million volunteers contributed about 8 billion hours of service worth $162 billion, based on the $20.25 value of a volunteer hour as estimated by Independent Sector. Volunteers are also more likely to donate to a charity, with 78 percent donating $25 or more, compared to 39 percent of non-volunteers.

The report was compiled by CNCS with the help of the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, surveying 100,000 people at a very high response rate, according to Grimm.