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U.S. volunteerism continues slide

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Ret Boney

For the second straight year, the number of Americans volunteering their time, as well as the overall rate of volunteerism, has dropped, a new study says.

Last year, 60.8 million people in the U.S. volunteered their time, down from 61.2 million in 2006, says “Volunteering in America: 2008 State and City Trends and Rankings,” released by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which also launched an interactive website containing detailed data at national, state and city levels.

The share of the country’s population that volunteers also inched lower last year, dropping to 26.2 percent of all Americans from 26.7 percent.

One factor in the decline is a trend called the “leaky bucket,” says Robert Grimm, director of research and policy for the Corporation.

Last year alone, the nation’s nonprofit sector overall lost 21.7 million people, or one in three of its volunteers, the report says.

“What we’ve found is the rate of people who try volunteering and drop out has spiked,” he says. “People have interest and enthusiasm for service, but when they try it, sometimes the experiences aren’t that satisfying for them.”

“It’s important to figure out ways to use volunteers well and keep people who are volunteering engaged,” he says. “It’s more vital today because of the economic pressures.”

On the positive side, the total number of hours volunteered in 2007 held steady at 8.1 billion, and is estimated to be worth more than $158 billion in donated time.

And over the past two decades, volunteering has grown significantly, up from 38 million volunteers and a volunteer rate of 20.4 percent in 1989.

And last year, more than a third of volunteers served 100 hours or more during the course of the year, an increase over 2006 of more than 373,000 in “intensive volunteers.”

The most popular means of serving last year was through religious organizations, which drew more than a third of all volunteers, the study says, followed by educational organizations, which accounted for more than one in four volunteers.

Raising money on behalf of a charity was the most popular volunteer activity in 2007, followed by collecting and distributing food.

Utah again topped the list for volunteerism, with 43.9 percent of its residents giving their time, followed by Nebraska, with 39.8 percent, and Minnesota, with 39.7 percent.

The volunteer rate was lowest in Nevada, where 17.7 percent of residents donated their time.

Regionally, the South topped the list in number of volunteers, with 20.83 million, the study says, while 31.1 percent of Midwesterners volunteered, a higher rate than any other part of the country.

Volunteerism rates in the 50 largest U.S. cities varied widely, from a high of 39.3 percent of residents in Minneapolis-St. Paul to a low of 14.5 percent in Miami.

But Provo, Utah, which topped the list of mid-sized cities, eclipsed all competitors with a volunteerism rate of almost 64 percent and average hours per volunteer topping 132 a year, compared to a national average of 36.1 hours.

More than 3.7 million Americans traveled more than 120 miles from their homes to volunteer last year, and almost 1.1 million people volunteered internationally.

And at least one in four volunteers in Mississippi and one in five in Louisiana came from out of state in 2007 to help with rebuilding in the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005, the study says.

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