July 16, 2010; Source: Austin American-Statesman | Austin’s luster as a very civic-minded city appears to be losing much of its shine. The latest report on volunteerism in the U.S. shows that Austin, which in 2006 ranked the third highest among the 50 largest cities, plunged to 36th place in 2010. These findings have nonprofit leaders scratching their heads to explain the major drop off—down some 43 percent in recent years.

The dip, however, appears to be a trend. The city has steadily reported lower numbers since its 2006 high. Still, the findings also seem at odds with what local groups are finding. According to the Austin American-Statesman, many local nonprofits say they’re flush with volunteers. One reason for the change in the statistical ranking may have to do with how the Corporation for National and Community service counts volunteer activity.

While primarily tracking the numbers of people who volunteer for what—described as “structured environments,” such as religious institutions, nonprofits, and corporations—the annual volunteerism survey doesn’t take account of other more casual activities such as “impromptu food drive or neighborhood park cleanups,” said corporation spokesperson, Ashley Etienne. Another factor could be population changes. For instance, when the number of residents increases and the total volunteer pool increases—as it has in Austin and surrounding areas—many newcomers don’t immediately start volunteering, creating the impression that overall volunteerism is down.

Community leaders will have a chance to find out what’s causing the drop in volunteerism as well as take efforts to increase participation again. The Rockefeller Foundation and Bloomberg Family Foundation recently awarded the city a two-year grant that will be used to hire someone to assess volunteer efforts in the city and develop a plan to involve more people in community service. Mark Nathan, chief of staff for Mayor Lee Leffingwell is hopeful that person might also help the city find out the reason for its declining volunteer rate. Said Nathan, “One of the things the person is going to have to do is get to the bottom of that question.—Bruce Trachtenberg