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Looking on the Bright Side of the New Volunteering Data

Looking on the Bright Side of the New Volunteering Data

While it is troubling that a new report indicates that Americans are volunteering less than they have in over a decade, it is reassuring that United Way’s most recent volunteer data show that we have experienced a 10-year growth in volunteers. And until we know exactly why the overall U.S. volunteering rate is declining, I am confident that United Way’s focus on improving outcomes in education, income and health will continue to attract new volunteers to our work.

On February 25, 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that as of September 2013, the U.S. volunteer rate declined by 1.1 percentage points. Still, about 62.6 million people -- 25.4 percent of all Americans 16 and older -- volunteered through or for an organization at least once in the previous 12 months.

United Way’s data through 2012 tells a different story. Overall, volunteer engagement with United Way remains strong and the number of United Way volunteers increased steadily through 2011. United Way engaged 2.68 million volunteers in 2012, and over the previous decade we saw a dramatic growth in “community” volunteers, i.e., those who are advocates for our causes, help alleviate a crisis in their community, or who volunteer on Day of Action or another day of service, and through other United Way-led projects making an impact in the community.

Plus, the BLS survey found that 9.8 percent of volunteers were involved with tutoring or teaching, surpassed only by volunteers who collect, prepare or serve food (10.9 percent) and those who fundraise (10.0 percent). This came as good news, as United Way has inspired more than 300,000 individuals to pledge to become a volunteer reader, tutor or mentor. Research proves that caring volunteers working with students of all ages have the power to help kids boost academic achievement and put young people on track for a bright future.

So, I am optimistic about volunteering in America. The new findings make me want to work harder to engage our volunteers more deeply, as well as to recruit new volunteers to our work. Last year’s decline in volunteering may inspire organizations to rethink their volunteer recruitment, be better about setting clear expectations and invest more in training volunteers, which can lead to greater volunteer satisfaction and commitment. All that would be a good for the volunteers, the organizations and our communities.

What do you think?  Has your organization experienced a decline in volunteers and if so, why do you think that is?  If you are a volunteer, have you dropped out this past year, and why?  We’d love to hear your thoughts on how to energize and mobilize volunteers so that this time next year, we will celebrate an increase in volunteering and commitment to advancing the common good.