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Volunteer Power News — Number 43
Author: Thomas W. McKee
"Volunteer Power News" Monthly Newsletter

© 2006 Advantage Point Systems Publishing

A warm welcome to all volunteer managers—those of you who recruit, motivate and mobilize volunteer workers.

What is the State of Volunteerism Today?
By Thomas McKee

In this Issue:

  1. 20th Century volunteers
  2. What is the biggest change in the volunteers we recruit today?
  3. The new trend is much more fragile
  4. So, what is the state of volunteer involvement today?
  5. Generational volunteering
  6. State by state comparison
  7. So what? What does all this mean? Concluding observations
  8. And one more conclusion—the need for a new volunteer system that caters to the new 21st century volunteer.

view this issue on our website


20th Century Volunteers

I am often asked this question, "What is the state of volunteerism in America today?" Recently I was asked about the propensity of women to volunteer and that question peeked my interest.

Let's face it… volunteers have changed over the years.

In the early 20th century most volunteers were stay-at-home mothers or retired people-most likely your great grandmother or aunt were in that category. This trend continued through the mid-20th century. The volunteer system was a great system designed for the ideal volunteer: a retired person or a woman who had plenty of extra time.

In the 50's most of the church volunteers and Sunday school teachers were women. But in the latter half of the 20th century woman began to work outside the home. The demographics of many of American families changed from "Father knows Best" to "Murphy Brown" - the single professional parent. In the 80's, volunteer managers were recruiting more and more single parents, because it was rapidly becoming the norm. Movies like Spielberg's E.T. gave us a glimpse of one typical 80's American home, with the single working mom and her three kids. In the 90's the percentage of families headed by a married couple dropped to 53% according to the U.S. census report.

So now that "Mom" had her hands full, recruiting volunteers became more and more difficult. New demands emerged for families and young professionals. Technology, which was supposed to decrease our work load, has actually increased the expectations from our customers, our members and our employees. We are never away from someone's "to-do" list. The words of the 70's and 80's, "I'm too busy" are repeated more today than ever.

What is the biggest change in the volunteers we recruit today?

Prof. Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University, in a groundbreaking book based on vast new data, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, argues that civil society was breaking down as Americans became more disconnected from their families, neighbors, communities, and the republic itself. The organizations that gave life to democracy were fraying. Bowling became his driving metaphor. Years ago, he wrote, thousands of people belonged to bowling leagues. Today, however, they're more likely to bowl alone. He claims,

Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness (Putnam, Robert D. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 367).

Putnam claimed that participation in volunteer associations in the 90's plunged by 30-50% since the mid-1960's (p. 128). Those of us in volunteer management felt this decline. That's depressing.

Any good news?

It depends on how you look at it. As we approached the end of the 20th century and entered the new millennium, a new trend evolved that reversed the statistics. Whether it is a good trend or not is debatable, but the new trend has produced a new kind of volunteer.

The New Trend Is Much More Fragile

Twenty years ago the vast majority of volunteers were recruited through local networks of religious and other civic associations. But while these pools have been shrinking rapidly, the actual numbers of volunteers is increasing. How can volunteerism be increasing while the channels of volunteer recruitment are drying up?

Putnam suggests that volunteer recruiters have learned to reach outside the traditional volunteer network. In fact, the rate of volunteering among people who never attend church or a civil organization has nearly tripled in the last twenty years. Church goers and club members still provide the greatest number of volunteers, but compared to twenty years ago, organizations are less exclusive about who volunteers. Putman concludes,

Optimistically we might say that volunteerism has begun to spread beyond the bounds of traditional community organizations. A less optimistic interpretation would add that commitments to volunteerism are more fragile and more sporadic now that they depend on single-stranded obligations, without reinforcement from well-woven cords of organizational involvement (Putman, p 129).

An example of this kind of volunteering is Katrina. Twenty years ago churches and service clubs would have provided the number one source of volunteers. And many churches did send teams to help. But in addition, many volunteered with the Red Cross who have no affiliation with this group.

So, what is the state of volunteer involvement today?

According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data . . .

  • Volunteerism is up 8% since 1989.
  • More than one in four (28%) Americans engage in volunteer activities; up from one in five (20%) in 1989.

Gender, race, age, and educational attainment all affect an individual's propensity to give their time and energies to volunteer activities. Though overall volunteerism has increased since 1989, the following trends have remained consistent:

  • Women are more likely than men to engage in volunteer activities (31% vs. 24%) overall and at every age bracket.
  • In the 16-24 year old age bracket, those enrolled in school (high school or college) volunteer at nearly twice the rate (29%) of those not enrolled (15%).
  • Those with higher levels of educational attainment tend to volunteer at greater rates; 44% of college graduates volunteer, which is double the rate of high school graduates, and four times the rate of those without a high school diploma or equivalent.
  • Whites are more likely to volunteer (29%) than any other ethnic group, compared with African-Americans and Hispanics, 19% and 16% respectively.
  • People between the ages of 35 and 54 are more likely to volunteer than those younger or older.

The most complete report that I have seen was sent to me by one of our Volunteer Power subscribers. It is the Volunteering in America: State Trends and Rankings. The reports states that with the September 11 attacks, President Bush's call to service in early 2002 and then the devastation of Hurricane Katrina four years later, Americans have increased their volunteer activities in their communities significantly.

  • In 2002 59.5 million Americans volunteered
  • In 2005 65.4 million Americans volunteered
  • By the year 2010 the projection is that over 75 million American people will be volunteering

The report presents report includes a two-page profile for each state and the District of Columbia, and displays information on the number of people volunteering, the volunteering rate, the number of hours volunteered, the primary organizations at which volunteers perform work, and the types of activities volunteers perform in each state. Read the full report (PDF).

A quick summary of the report:

  • The greatest percentage of volunteers in the U.S. volunteered primarily through religious organizations (34.8%).
  • Over a quarter of volunteers donated time to educational or youth service organizations and approximately 13.4% of volunteers donated time to social or community service organizations.
  • Over one-third of volunteers reported coaching, refereeing, tutoring, teaching, or mentoring.
  • Fundraising or selling items to raise money was the second most popular volunteer activity, performed by nearly 30% of volunteers.
  • The third most common activity performed was collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food (26.3%).
  • In 2005, volunteers in the U.S. spent a median of 50 hours on volunteer activities.

Generational Volunteering

The percentage of volunteers in each of the following age groups ranged from 33.3% to 24.2%:

  • Seniors - Over 65 24.4%
  • Boomers - (ages 41-64) 33.3%
  • College Students 30.5%
  • Ages 16-24 - 24.2%

Note: I have no idea why they left out Gen X (ages 25-40). This is a very important group because many of them will volunteer with their children's activities (coaching, mentoring, youth sponsors, etc.)

State by State Comparison

In a state by state comparison of volunteering rates for 2003 to 2005, the states varied greatly in their reported volunteering rates over this 3 year period, ranging from a high of 48% to a low of 18%.

Highest rating states:

  • Utah - 48%
  • Nebraska - 42.2%
  • Minnesota - 40.7%
  • Iowa - 40.2%
  • Alaska - 38.9%
  • Wyoming -- 38.8%
  • South Dakota - 38.8%
  • Kansas - 38.6%
  • Vermont - 38.1%
  • Montana - 37.9%
  • Wisconsin - 37.0%

Lowest rating states:

  • California - 26.1%
  • Georgia - 25.9%
  • Tennessee - 25.9%
  • Arkansas 25.6%
  • Hawaii - 25.4%
  • Rhode Island - 24.9%
  • Arizona -- 24.9%
  • West Virginia -- 24.6%
  • Florida - 24.1%
  • Louisiana - 22.7%
  • New York - 21.3%
  • Nevada - 18.8%

So what does this mean? I have several conclusions...

  • Volunteers respond to crises (9/11 and Katrina)
  • Volunteers are cause driven-the high percentage of religious volunteers
  • When our organization has a cause-driven need, individual volunteers (often outside the organization) will respond to a short-term project.
  • Yes, and women will respond first.
  • Often people with less education and in lower income brackets are struggling to just get by and use all of their time trying to make a living-leaving little time for volunteering.
  • For the most part, people seem to volunteer in cold climates more than in warm climates (note state rankings).
  • Volunteerism is gaining with the younger generation-ages 16-24. Many of these students are required to volunteer as part of their high school or college class assignments. My eight-grade grandson volunteers at the county library as a school assignment. He has been introduced to a whole new world of volunteering.
  • And yes, women seem to have a greater propensity to volunteer than men.

And one more conclusion: The need for a new volunteer system that caters to the new 21st century volunteer.

The volunteer system was designed for the early 20th century volunteer - a stay at home mom or retired person. In order to recruit "The New Volunteer", we need to reframe our volunteer organizations and volunteer management systems, which is the theme of our new book.

New Book, The New Volunteer, to be released in 2007.

My son Jonathan and I have just signed a contract to have our new book, The New Volunteer-How to recruit and manage the new volunteers who want to do it their way, released in November 2007. As we get close to publication, watch for a special release for all Volunteer Power subscribers.


Volunteer Power Workshops or Key-Note Presentations for Your Organization

Consider one of the following topics (or several of the topics) for a Volunteer Power Workshop:

The Seven Deadly Sins of Recruiting
         And what to do about them to increase your active volunteers

Some Cats Got It . . . Some Cats Don't
         How to maximize the power and passion of the volunteer organization

Ten Really Cool Things that You Need to Know about Volunteering That You Are Not Hearing
         What is new in volunteer management

They Don't Play My Music Anymore
         Leadership Strategies During Times of Change

The New Volunteer
         New Rules for an Old Cause--Recruiting and Motivating 21st Century Volunteers Who Wants to Do It Their Way.

Tom McKee is a leading volunteer management speaker, trainer and consultant. You can reach Tom at (916) 987-0359 or e-mail him at tom@advantagepoint.com. Other articles and free resources are available at www.volunteerpower.com.