Volunteering down in 2006

By Ret Boney

Driven in part by a low volunteer-retention rate, the number of Americans donating their time dropped to about 61 million last year, the lowest number since 2002, a new report says.

Those who volunteered last year account for slightly more than one in four Americans, representing the lowest rate of volunteering in the U.S. since before 2002, says “Volunteering in America: 2007 State Trends and Rankings in Civic Life,” published by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“To grow and sustain high levels of volunteering, we need to shift the paradigm and the roles of volunteers,” says Robert Grimm, director of research and policy development for the Corporation.  “They need meaningful, substantial and fulfilling volunteer opportunities.”

One in three people who volunteered in 2005 did not continue in 2006, the study says.

“If we could cut the dropout rate in half, there would have been over 10 million more people volunteering last year,” says Grimm.

To do that, he suggests charities explore ways to make volunteer experiences more rewarding, perhaps by using skilled volunteers for jobs typically reserved for expensive consultants, while paying to have the menial tasks done.

Combined, Americans volunteered 8.1 billion hours last year, down from a high of 8.5 million hours in 2004.

The number of volunteers logging those hours peaked in the U.S. at 65.4 million people in 2005, and the volunteer rate held steady at 28.8 percent from 2003 through 2005.

However, the number of volunteers has grown sharply since 1989, when it stood at 38 million, or a rate of 20.4 percent.

“Even though rates declined nationally, even in 2006 Americans were volunteering at a higher rate than they were in the year after 9/11,” says Grimm.

Growth in volunteers over that time period has been driven primarily by young adults, middle-aged adults and seniors, the study says, but volunteer rates for each of those groups dropped in 2006.

Volunteer rates, based on three-year averages, varied widely across the U.S., with Utah in the lead at almost 46 percent of the population volunteering, and Nevada bringing up the rear with 17.5 percent.

Utah volunteers also logged the greatest number of median hours, 81.9, the study says, while Louisianans volunteered a median of 22.1, fewer than any other state.

The largest portion of American volunteers, more than one in three, contribute their time through a religious organization, while more than one in four work with education or youth-service groups and  more than one in 10 engaged in social or community service.

Almost one in three engage through fundraising, while one in four are involved in food preparation, service or distribution, and about one in five do general-labor activities, while a similar number tutor or teach.

“Overall, it’s good news in that there’s a lot of interest in volunteering,” says Grimm.  “But if we don’t transform that into meaningful, substantial opportunities and see volunteering as a key quality of life indicator, we could lose the enthusiasm we see today.”

For the first time, the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2006 assessed Americans’ level of civic engagement.

The Civic Life Index measures individuals’ involvement in society along 12 indicators, including volunteering, voting and neighborhood engagement, with the nation’s average score serving as the index of 100.

According to the new measure, Montana is the most civically-engaged state, with a score of 126, while Nevada is least-engaged, with a score of 86.3.

Overall, 55.3 percent of Americans voted in the 2004 general election, the study says, while only 37 percent voted in the latest mid-term election and fewer than one in 10 attended a public meeting.

The report is based data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau.

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