Volunteerism Unfazed by Recession

A new report released today by the Corporation for National and Community Service finds that even during a time of prolonged economic recession, volunteering has remained steady, fueled by a compassion boom led by young adults and a wave of do-it-yourself volunteers working with their neighbors to fix problems.

Volunteering in America 2009, the most comprehensive data ever assembled on volunteer trends and demographics, found that a total of 61.8 million Americans volunteered through an organization in 2008, up one million from the previous year. America's volunteers dedicated more than 8 billion hours of service in 2008, worth an estimated $162 billion.

While the formal volunteering rate in America remained relatively stable at 26.4%, other less-formal ways of serving in communities have dramatically increased. The number of people who worked with their neighbors to fix a community problem rose by 31%, from 15.2 million in 2007 to 19.9 million in 2008, suggesting an emerging trend of self-organized 'do-it-yourself' service, a trend the Obama Administration is working to encourage through its United We Serve initiative and Serve.gov Web site.

The fact the volunteering held steady during a time of high unemployment and foreclosure rates was welcome news to nonprofit and government leaders, who are facing increasing demands at a time of dwindling resources. Previous research would suggest that volunteering should drop during an economic downturn, because volunteer rates are higher among job-holders and homeowners. Volunteering trends for 2008 stand in stark contrast to charitable giving, which experienced the steepest decline in the past 53 years last year.

The report also found an increase in volunteering by young adults (age 16-24), rising from 7.8 million in 2007 to 8.2 million in 2008. The finding aligns with other indicators suggesting a strong service ethic among the millennial generation, including a 217% increase in applications to AmeriCorps over the past 8 months.

The research is based on annual surveys of approximately 100,000 individuals collected by the U.S. Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in partnership with the Corporation. The VolunteeringInAmerica.gov We bsite contains nine years of data on volunteering, and rankings, volunteer trends and demographic information for every state and almost 200 large and mid-sized cities. It is produced to help national, state and local leaders better understand volunteering trends and demographics and use the data to develop effective strategies for recruiting and retaining volunteers.

To make it easier for Americans to volunteer, the Corporation worked with the White House to launch a new Serve.gov Web site in June. At Serve.gov, organizations can post their needs, and potential volunteers can find local opportunities simply by entering their zip codes. The site includes do-it-yourself toolkits with instructions for finding and filling local needs, and a blog featuring stories of service from people all across the country.

Nonprofits Turning to Volunteers to Fill the Gap

As part of this year's report, the Corporation supported Johns Hopkins University to conduct a nationwide survey about the impact of the economy on a sample of over 1,400 nonprofit organizations. The results show that 80% of nonprofits have experienced significant economic stress, with more than a third indicating the stress is "severe" or "very severe."

In the wake of declining financial and staff resources, more nonprofits are relying on and increasing their demand for volunteers. The Hopkins study found that between September 2008 and March 2009, more than a third (37%) of nonprofit organizations reported increasing the number of volunteers they use, and almost half (48%) foresee increasing their use of volunteers in the coming year. That effort could also help with fundraising challenges since this report also discovered that individuals who volunteer are more than twice as likely to donate to a charity or nonprofit organization as individuals who do not volunteer: 78.2% of volunteers made a charitable contribution worth $25 or more as compared to 38.5% of non-volunteers.

Key State and City Findings

  • For the fourth year in a row, Utah was the top volunteer state with a volunteer rate 43.5%, followed by Nebraska (38.9%), Minnesota (38.4%), Alaska (38%), and Iowa (37.1%).

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul once again ranked number one among large cities at 38.4%, followed by Portland, OR (36.7%), Salt Lake City, UT (36.5%), Seattle, WA (34.3%), and Kansas City, MO (33.4%).

  • Mid-size cities, particularly those in the Midwest, have on average higher volunteer rates than large cities, and residents of mid-size cities contribute more hours to volunteering.

  • In the second annual look at volunteering in 75 mid-sized cities, Provo, Utah, again led the nation with a whopping 62.9% olunteer rate, followed by Iowa City (42.9%), Ogden, UT (43.6%), Madison, WI (41.5%), and Topeka, KS (40.7%).

  • Although women are more likely than men to be volunteers - in fact, working mothers have the highest volunteer rates of all - men are more likely to participate in their community in less formal ways.