Monday, January 5, 2009

Volunteerism In America

The Easton Express-Times featured an article today about local volunteer groups, and the trouble that some are having recruiting new volunteers:

More than 20 years ago, the Bushkill Township Lions Club raised the money to build a pavilion for the township park that is still used today.

Two months ago, the once active club was forced to disband due to a lack of volunteers.

"We just didn't have enough members, so we decided to drop it," said Cliff Bonney, 84, one of the club's founding members and one of eight still active when the club finally closed.

Once among the leaders of local volunteer organizations, the Bushkill group is not the only local Lions Club to have lost some of its roar in recent years.

Local Lions Clubs Fear Closing Down Due To Lack Of Volunteers

As the article went on to explain, this isn't a unique situation in this area. Many community organizations are having trouble finding people to volunteer. Bushkill Township is a good example of one reason - many people who live in it now moved there from somewhere else. The township was once mostly agricultural, but over the last thirty years or so has become increasingly suburban. The people who live there mostly work somewhere else. The new residents are typical of a new group of Americans who, in a sense, don't feel a sense of community.

But, as the Volunteering In America website, which is run by the federal government to promote volunteerism, suggests, there are other reasons:

Volunteers, on average, are about as busy as others, yet they make the time to serve others. In a typical day, the largest difference in how time is spent between recent volunteers (who have volunteered for an organization within the past year, according to the last volunteering survey they completed), former volunteers (who have volunteered with an organization, but not within this timeframe) and lifelong non-volunteers is in how much television they each watch.

How Do Volunteers Find the Time?: Evidence from the American Time Use Study

It's not the first thing that's been blamed on television, of course, but in a way it makes sense. People who spend more time in front of TVs tend to be less active generally, and also tend to be more depressed. As this study shows, correlation does not prove cause, and so one would be wise to consider the possibility that greater TV watching and lack of volunteerism might both be related to some other cause. One might be the rootlessness I mentioned earlier. Another study at the Volunteering In America site notes:

Indicators, such as homeownership, the number of multiunit dwellings, and population density help determine whether residents have a long-term commitment and attachment to their communities.

There is a strong positive relationship between homeownership rates and metropolitan volunteer rates, indicating that where homeownership rates are high, volunteering is also high. In 2006, the national homeownership rate was 66.2%.

On the other hand, communities with a large percentage of multiunit housing, such as apartment buildings, are likely to attract a more transient population and likely have lower volunteer rates. At a national level, 34.2% of individuals live in multi-unit housing structures.

High population density can also reduce attachment to the community by increasing the level of anonymity among residents and making community bonding more difficult (see Sampson, et al [1999]). This too can have a negative impact on volunteer rates. The average population density for the nation is 83.8 people per square mile.

Factors that influence Volunteer Rates

Bushkill Township has seen an increase in most of those factors in the last few decades.

Another may be the increased need for flexibility in schedules. My parents, who are very active in their local church, mentioned that they've found that people are far more likely to volunteer for things that don't require a commitment stretching over many months or years. As a volunteer in community theatre, I've found a similar trend. People are more likely to help out on occasional weekends than for the run of a play, and are even less likely to volunteer for long term posts or jobs like board membership. The VIA site's study on factors affecting volunteering observed:

The ability of communities to keep volunteers engaged year after year (volunteer retention) is strongly related to the volunteer rate. The right types of volunteer opportunities and management of volunteers can encourage an individual to continue volunteering. On the other hand, as with paid employment, a poor fit between a volunteer and a nonprofit increases the probability that a volunteer will not be retained. For nonprofits that depend on volunteers, turnover results in the need to incur substantial additional costs associated with recruiting, orienting, and managing new volunteers. On average nationally, one out of three volunteers (64.3%) dropped out of volunteering after one year of service.

Factors that influence Volunteer Rates

That same rootlessness, together with the less permanent status of most jobs in America, may contribute to this unwillingness to make commitments.

Whatever the reason, if the Express-Times' article represents a larger trend, this is a worrying development. America, with its philosophy of limited government, is perhaps more dependent on volunteers than most countries. As the Volunteering In America site notes:

In 2007, 60.8 million Americans volunteered 8.1 billion hours to address the nation’s most challenging needs and participated in activities such as mentoring children of incarcerated parents, cleaning watersheds to help the environment, working in religious organizations to distribute food to families in need, and providing other services necessary to the nation’s health. Volunteering is a core staple of American democracy and a key asset in solving some of today’s most pressing problems.

How Do Volunteers Find the Time?: Evidence from the American Time Use Study

It may be that the nature of volunteerism is changing. Another study on the VIA site reveals:

• There were one million more volunteers in 2007 than 2002, and volunteering is stronger now than two decades ago.
• Volunteer intensity is increasing. Today, over a third of volunteers (34%) serve intensively, volunteering 100 or more hours in a year. The number of volunteers donating more than 100 hours annually increased last year although the overall volunteering rate and number of volunteers did not. In fact, the number of “intensive volunteers” increased by over 373,000 — the first increase in this statistic since 2004. In 2007, the proportion of volunteers giving 100+ hours reached its highest level since 2002 when 35 percent of all volunteers gave 100+ hours. Furthermore, the number of total volunteer hours contributed by adults in 2007 was roughly the same as that in 2006.

Volunteering in America Research Highlights (PDF)

It looks like some organizations, and some communities, are seeing a decline in volunteerism. Generally, there seems less cause for concern.

If you're interested in doing more volunteering in your community, check out the Volunteering In America website. There is a search tool that can find volunteer opportunities near where you live in many different areas of interest. It might do you good to get away from that TV for a few hours, or it might do your community good. Either way, things will probably look better.


One Fly said...

It's so important too. Bottom line though even if it's in decline there are more than enough people out there no matter what.

The small town I just moved from the people just plain refused to participate and it was critical that they did so. When they did it was in big numbers and bitching was their game. Many people everywhere can find time for that.

I think what we may see as the economy gets worse is more people helping each other and that would be a good start to changing the mindset of our society.

This place is 10 times bigger.I'm not involved with anything just now but we'll see what comes up.

Cujo359 said...

I suspect that part of what's going on is that people are volunteering differently. One thing that the VIA site and the EE-T article seemed to agree on is that parents tend to volunteer more, at least while their children are in school or involved in other activities. So perceived self-interest is definitely a factor.

Hard times will probably bring more volunteer work. If it does, that's a good thing, because we'll certainly need it.