This article is from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s fall 2016 edition, “The Nonprofit Workforce: Overcoming Obstacles.”
Every year, millions of Americans—on college campuses, through religious congregations, at schools, and in social service organizations—are participating in a wide range of volunteer activities. Whether teaching and mentoring children, helping seniors to live independently, or aiding families and individuals to recover from hurricanes and other disasters, volunteering is a way for people to help their neighbors and enhance their communities; it also provides opportunities for youth to develop valuable skills, adults to share their professional expertise, and older individuals to remain healthy by staying active and connected to their community.
But how has volunteering changed over the last forty years in the United States? Our research shows that volunteering has increased dramatically for certain age groups, particularly the oldest (sixty-five and over) and the youngest (sixteen to nineteen). Meanwhile, some important volunteering patterns have never changed: for example, people ages thirty-five to forty-four tend to volunteer more than younger adults and older adults, because they tend to have stronger connections to their communities. Overall, the long-term trends we outline will disappoint those who expected that national crises such as 9/11 and the Great Recession would spark a new golden age of sustained high levels of volunteering.
Background: Historical Data on Volunteering
In 2006, we (the authors of this article, along with our coauthors) published a research brief, Volunteer Growth in America: A Review of Trends Since 1974, while working for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). This brief presented a historical review of volunteering through an analysis of data collected in 1974, 1989, and 2003 to 2005 via the Current Population Survey (CPS).1 The CPS, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is the source of official government statistics on employment and unemployment. Each month for over fifty years, the CPS has collected data from around one hundred thousand adults in approximately fifty-six thousand households across the United States. (See the Methodological Note on Survey Comparisons sidebar at the end of this article for more details about the historical CPS data.)
Each September since 2002, the CPS monthly survey has included a supplemental survey on volunteering, sponsored by CNCS. These supplements have provided researchers with annual data on volunteering that have served as the data source for several CNCS research reports.2 Most volunteering research in the United States has relied on the data from these individual, annual “modern-day” supplements;3 our approach offers a broader historical view by including data not just from the 2002 to 2015 supplement but also earlier supplements (1974 and 1989), in order to track historical changes in volunteering.
In our 2006 brief, we included CPS survey data from 1974 and 1989. Now, we add data from CPS’s 2015 supplement, so that we can take an in-depth look at volunteering during four different periods in American history.
Volunteering Hit a Forty-Year High After 9/11 and Then Declined Substantially
When the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred, many observers speculated that the nation was entering one of those historical moments that would serve as a catalyst for a new age of citizen engagement. Prior to 9/11, substantial research found that individuals’ involvement with their community had significantly declined over the last half-century.4 Shortly after that, signs began to emerge that volunteering and other forms of civic participation in America were beginning to undergo a renewal. And this has been borne out: Americans’ engagement in politics, for one noteworthy example, has been increasing—with voter participation in presidential elections rising between 1996 and 2012, and peaking in 2008.5
The immediate post-9/11 years were a high-water mark for volunteering, too—as Figure 1, which looks at volunteer rates across a forty-year period, demonstrates. When volunteer rates are calculated in a time-consistent way, the adult volunteer rate measured in September 2015 was virtually identical to the volunteer rate measured in April 1974. This is mainly a consequence of recent declines in the national volunteer rate: the 2015 rate is the lowest rate measured since the CPS began conducting annual volunteer surveys in 2002.6 Still, over sixty-two million adults reported in 2015 that they did at least some volunteer work over the previous year.
It appears that 9/11 had a relatively short-lived impact on volunteer rates on a national level. The decline is disappointing given our hope that 9/11 might help reverse long-term declines in community engagement. The decline is also surprising given that one would expect there to have been an increased demand for volunteers from nonprofit organizations: the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics estimates that between 2003 and 2013, the number of public charities increased by almost twenty percent.8 While many of these new nonprofits may be primarily staffed by professionals, nonprofit organizations continue to rely on volunteers to help them run their internal operations and provide services to the community (a national study of nonprofit volunteer management in 2003 indicated that 81 percent of nonprofit organizations in America use volunteers). The Great Recession, which started in 2007, didn’t stimulate any lasting outpouring of new volunteering by Americans—nor greater recruitment of volunteers by nonprofits, either—as Figure 1 suggests.
While the volunteering rate has risen and fallen over the last forty years, Americans have co