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American Volunteerism Hit Bottom in 2013

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The number of Americans who volunteer their services to nonprofit organizations has barely moved over the past decade, and hit a new low in 2013, according to an analysis of federal statistics by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Federal statistics that measure unpaid work for nonprofits and other groups show that the volunteerism stayed around 26% to 27% in the decade before 2013 — though it spiked to 29% from 2003 to 2005 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The numbers remained relatively static despite efforts by various groups and community-services pitches by President Barack Obama and his family, The Chronicle said. A survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of 60,000 households about civilians who were at least 16 and did not live in institutions showed these trends in volunteerism:

  • 2003: 63.8 million or 28.8%
  • 2004: 64.5 million or 28.8%
  • 2005: 65.4 million or 28.8%
  • 2006: 61.2 million or 26.7%
  • 2007: 60.8 million or 26.2%
  • 2008: 61.8 million or 26.4%
  • 2009: 63.4 million or 26.8%
  • 2010: 62.8 million or 26.3%
  • 2011: 64.3 million or 26.8%
  • 2012: 64.5 million or 26.5%
  • 2013: 62.6 million or 25.4%

Volunteers were defined as people who had done unpaid work (except for expenses) through or for an organization at least once in the previous year.

Cash Needed

Greg Baldwin, president of the online listings group VolunteerMatch, suggested to The Chronicle that the numbers of volunteers had dipped because nonprofits were still recovering from the recession.

On a hopeful note, he expected them to rise in 2014 because VolunteerMatch listings in early March were up 11% over the previous year.

“The reality is, volunteer engagement is a reflection of nonprofit capacity, its leadership, its resources and ability to engage them,” he said.

The Chronicle cited studies showing that many nonprofits lacked the resources, such as paid coordinators, to manage volunteers well, and even those that did a good job did not necessarily want more bodies.

It said more than half of 21 organizations with high-quality volunteer programs that were surveyed in 2003 said they did not have the capacity to add more volunteers.

The respondents in another survey also cited challenges like finding volunteers who could work during business hours, and handling requests from schools and religious groups to do one-time group projects.

The report noted that some nonprofits limited the number of volunteers they took on because working with them was a significant commitment. For example, in fiscal year 2013, more than 350 people inquired about volunteering at the Boston rape center, but only 80 spots were available.

Situations like that leave a big gap between supply and demand, the report said. Some 11.6 million people visited VolunteerMatch in 2013, but they found fewer than 140,000 opportunities listed on the site over the year.

Foundations Could Help

The Chronicle reported that some volunteerism advocates were trying to persuade foundations to provide more money to help nonprofits manage volunteers, but with little effect.

“It’s going to take energy and a lot of understanding to shift philanthropy in this direction,” said Kaira Esgate, manager of Reimagining Service, a group that works to increase the impact of volunteers.

Still, some foundation efforts stand out, The Chronicle noted. The UPS Foundation in December awarded $2.4 million to nine nonprofits for volunteer efforts, with an emphasis on those responding to disasters.

In January, just as he was stepping down as New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg spun off one of his foundation’s programs as a standalone nonprofit to help mayors put volunteers to work on specific challenges, such as fighting obesity or beautifying neighborhoods.

Budget Constraints

Washington’s budget battles have taken their toll on the federal government’s efforts to promote volunteerism, according to the report. The Corporation for National and Community Service has in recent years increasingly concentrated its resources on AmeriCorps, the national-service program that offers stipends for people who spend up to a year helping nonprofits tackle social problems. As part of its 2006–10 strategic plan, the agency set annual goals for increasing volunteers, but stopped doing it after failing to ever meet the goals. The 2009 Serve America Act created a program to help nonprofits train and manage volunteers, but Congress provided only $3.8 million for it in 2014.

Susan Ellis, president of Energize, a consulting company that helps nonprofits train volunteer managers, told The Chronicle that the U.S. should emulate other countries by creating a “national volunteer center” to stimulate research, collect information, hold conferences, represent the volunteer perspective in legislative debates, and strengthen local and state volunteering offices.

Really So Bad?

The Chronicle said some experts wondered whether federal statistics were as worrisome as they appeared. They pointed out that many people volunteer in new ways, especially online, that may not be reflected in the statistics.

Ellis said more research was needed to supplement the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which are collected by the Census Bureau in its monthly surveys of 60,000 households.

She said the current survey questioned only individuals. It did not ask nonprofits how many volunteers they were using. Annual fluctuations in federal statistics should not cause alarm, she said.


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