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Episode 28: How Civic Engagement Changes in Times of Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the nonprofit sector in a number of ways. What effect COVID-19 might have on charitable behavior, like volunteering, remains to be seen. In this episode, we talk to Nathan Dietz, associate research scholar at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and a senior researcher at its Do Good Institute.

He and Robert Grimm co-authored “Community In Crisis: A Look at How U.S. Charitable Actions and Civic Engagement Change in Times of Crisis.” The 12-page report looks at charitable behavior after three crises: the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Great Recession.

“Given the dramatic and sudden changes in social life, many observers believe the novel coronavirus pandemic is likely to exert a much larger impact on civic engagement in America than any other event in recent history. Already, observers are drawing contrasts with the Great Recession, which did not seem to have a lasting impact on many charitable and civic trends,” according to the report.

“Like a lot of research reports that have come out recently, this was just driven by the immediacy” of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic crisis, Dietz said. “We talked about it in mid-March, put something out about what happens with charitable behavior when a big national crisis hits,” he said. “The scope of this crisis was going to be unlike anything else,” he said of the pandemic, adding that the Great Recession affected the entire country and lasted almost two years.

“We were interested in not just what happened in places where it happened, whether there was a surge in activity — which is what we expected — we were interested in what happens after that; after the crisis drops off the front page of out-of-town newspapers. How long before engagement and civic activities drop back to normal,” Dietz said.

The percentage of adults who volunteered through or for organizations reached their highest levels nationally and in the New York City metropolitan area in the years after Sept. 11. Volunteer rates from 2006 to 2015 have never been as high as the rates from the early post-Sept. 11 years, both nationally or in the New York City region.

There was a burst of activity right after crises in New Orleans and New York City, with people starting to serve at higher rates by the mid-2010s, what was happening nationally was happening in those areas as well, Dietz said. Both local and visiting volunteers in New Orleans boosted the volunteer rate there by as much as 20 percent. “It’s also a good illustration of what people do and to what extent people respond in extreme ways when fellow Americans need help,” Dietz said.

Between 2006 and 2012, the national adult volunteer rate was never higher than 27 percent and never less than 26 percent. By about 2013, there started to be a significant decline in all charitable indicators, and by 2015, the rate hit a 15-year low of 24.9 percent.

“We saw it in New Orleans in a shocking way because the declines were so severe, between the early and mid 2010s,” Dietz said. “That made us realize that even though there was something going on nationwide — maybe discouraging participation in some sense — it was even happening, in places where not that long ago, there had been a surge in civic activity,” he said.

“What we’re seeing now is very different, mainly because of the social distancing and sheltering in place regulations we’re all having to live under. That’s disrupted business as usual for many nonprofits,” Dietz said.

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