The U.S. Volunteer Rate is Still Dropping. Why?

Volunteer Rates are Going DownEach year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issues a report on volunteer rates in the United States.

This report tells us a lot. We can learn the total percentage of the population that has volunteered over the past year (from September – September). We can see which age groups and races volunteer the most, and whether men or women are more likely to volunteer. We can see if employment status, education level, marital status and more have an effect on volunteering.

We can even learn the types of organizations people tend to volunteer with, what the most common tasks they perform are, and how these things differ by various group associations. For example, in the 2015 report, we learn that older volunteers are more likely to volunteer for religious organizations than younger volunteers.

Unfortunately, however, we also see that volunteer rates have been steadily declining* for over a decade.

What don’t we see? We don’t see the why.

There’s an endless supply of reasons that could explain why volunteer rates are falling. Last year, upon seeing the results, VolunteerMatch President Greg Baldwin argued that volunteer rates are falling because we as a nation don’t invest enough resources in the nonprofit sector. Without resources, nonprofits simply don’t have the capacity to effectively engage volunteers.

Someone in the comments of that post argued that the falling rates can be attributed to the fact that more people are overworked with less time on their hands. Others say people are simply lazier than they used to be.

I personally think it could be attributed to a shifting trend away from community involvement, due to the emergence of online communities, young people moving more often, and other factors.

Obviously, there are a lot of opinions out there. Which is right? Could there be multiple reasons at the heart of this issue?

What do you think? As a leader of volunteers, is this trend affecting your work and your nonprofit?

Please share your thoughts and observations in the comments below, or tweet to us @VolunteerMatch. Let’s get to the bottom of this trend so we can start to turn it around!

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*According to the 2015 report, 24.9% of the U.S. population over the age of 16 volunteered at least once in the past year. In 2011, this percentage was 26.8%, and in 2005 it was 28.8%.

44 thoughts on “The U.S. Volunteer Rate is Still Dropping. Why?

  1. I am a volunteer coordinator at a large nonprofit but have to wear many different hats myself. In order to keep up with the volunteer requests, I’d have to work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

    I do try to answer every request, but I know I miss a few. When I do finally hold an orientation, out of 20 possible volunteers, only 2 maybe 3 stay on.

    I like to utilize retirees as my stable “base” during the day. But a lot of my retirees are ageing out and now I’m finding it difficult to recruit new retirees because they are all having to work much longer for obvious reasons.

    I try to think of all kinds of ways to make my volunteers feel appreciated including doubling hours on days when I need help the most, but it’s still a struggle.

    This has been an interesting thread. I’m thinking about starting a LinkedIn Group for local volunteer coordinators so we can brainstorm.

  2. Instead of pointing fingers and blaming others for their inability to recruit volunteers, most nonprofits should first look in the mirror and ask themselves a simple question. “Would I volunteer with this group?’
    Unfortunately, most nonprofits start out with good intentions then loose focus and become their own worst enemy.
    I use to volunteer with a small group whose founder would say that she ran her organization “by the seat of her pants.” She wasn’t kidding.
    Delegating was not in her vocabulary. She had to have her hand in everything and then not complete whatever she took over.
    The group has a great cause and has made some progress but nowhere close to where it should be.
    Several very good volunteers and opportunities have been lost because of her inability to listen and be flexible.
    Any organization or group without a leader, vision and goal will never reach its potential and is doomed to fail.
    You have to lead by example. Delegate, listen, be flexible, honest, compassionate, understanding, sincere and true to your word.
    Know that you have to lean on others in order to complete daily tasks.
    How do you keep volunteers coming back?
    You run the nonprofit as a business, but keep it fun and interesting.
    Most people want to know and feel that they are making a difference in someone’s life.
    When volunteers show up to help, use them. If you don’t use their talents they will slowly drift away and not come back.
    No one wants to be taken advantage of or made to feel that they have wasted their time and effort.
    Lead and delegate and let people use their talents, they are your greatest resource.

  3. It is too bad that studies like these do not factor in kinds of volunteerism today, like virtual volunteering. This is where these studies are lacking today- they do not consider the work of online volunteers in all of their various acts over the past two decades and longer. This is a poor representation of what is actually happening today around the world and leaves a grim picture of social action today. Since the advent of the Internet (ARPANET) people were volunteering online- starting with the digitizing of books- aka Project Gutenberg. The work of today’s online volunteers needs to be studied more closely.

    As a lifelong volunteer and online volunteer for 15+ years, I feel rather skeptical of these study results. All night and all day there have been people voluntarily editing wikis, supporting organizations through social media, moderating discussions, microvolunteering, and more.

    I believe there is not as much a decrease in volunteering but a necessity to redefine what volunteerism is and how we understand it today. If non profits see a decline in volunteer support, they should really look into more creative ways to engage, support, and recognize today’s younger volunteers, like through the development of games for their websites, beta testing, and spreading the word through informal marketing.

    People are busier now as they juggle work, school, life…volunteering online has become the more practical way to give back- people can volunteer from home and choose from many more opportunities and volunteer when they want and for how long they want. Volunteers even can get something from their volunteer experience, whether a new connection, a letter of recommendation, or even college credit. Volunteering online can open new doors and be a win-win for the volunteer and non profit organization. https://youtu.be/wNaF5aQvIa4

  4. I agree with many of he reasons that have been stated. I am a volunteer coordinator for Hospice. We require a background check, references, and other pertinent information along with training. It’s applying for a job without the pay. Many of the folks that have contacted me loose interest with all the details needed. Another factor is location. We service patients all over Chicago and surrounding suburbs. One of the biggest needs is people volunteering to visit patients, and that requires additional travel time and means of transportation which is an out pocket expense that many folks do not want or cannot afford. Perfectly understandable. Just have to keep trying and hope that things will improve over time.
    Yes, it is very important to say THANK YOU to those willing to give their time to help others in all capacities. People are not only giving time, they are giving a little piece of themselves to the organization. They are our best form of advertisement. They volunteer for your organization because they believe in what you do and the services you provide.

  5. I think part of the trend is really that people who work increasingly struggle to juggle their personal lives with work and are left with little time to commit to volunteering. Hours are longer and/or there is more work for the same number of hours (this has been a trend across the job market) which leaves people with less energy after work. My volunteers are either students looking to build resume (they stay few months), those out of work, or retired for the most part. Very little those who work full time actually volunteer, even if only for a couple of hours a week. We forget that volunteering is not only time you spend at the organization but also commuting time which in large cities like Charlotte can be a real problem and adds on the time and energy needed to volunteer. It is also that the resources organization has to devote to volunteers has decreased for the similar reasons, making it harder to maintain a good retention program for volunteers (lack of time and other resources on the side of staff).

    • From reading some of the recent comments I am noticing a big disconnect between those who want to volunteer and those running the volunteer programs. Volunteers want to volunteer when and how they want, which is understandable, but also do not realize what is entailed in running volunteer programs. Many volunteer programs have one coordinator or manager per 100 or more volunteers in multiple positions. It is so much more difficult to staff than an employee who comes every day 9-5 or the like for a position that is vacant. Volunteer positions get filled and change and the hours might be 2 hours on a Saturday or 4 hours, 3 days a week. Schedules are all over the place.
      At a hospital we cannot let volunteers do anything clinical without liability insurance, licensing, employment etc. so some of the work is boring. The volunteer makes it exciting by asking questions, getting to know staff and offering to lend a hand. The longer they stay, the more they will get to do. The last time I trained a well-qualified volunteer for something more skilled, she learned everything and left. This is why volunteer managers cannot always afford to train someone for a better volunteer position when family, school, work come first so they quit volunteering before everything else; also understandable, but this is the conundrum.

  6. I want to say “Ditto to all of the above.” There are so many reasons why the rate is dropping. I didn’t read every comment, so this may have been covered already. But, in my opinion, one of the areas that does not get much focus is engaging the younger generations.

    When I was younger, volunteering and giving back was part of life. It was something that we did and didn’t think twice about it. I don’t see that same philosophy these days. It’s to the point that schools here require some level of community service to complete your graduation requirements.

    I’ve experienced a lot of the other issues – lack of response, lack of engagement with existing volunteers, last minute role changes, etc. But, if we don’t have new volunteers in the pipeline, the issue is just going to get worse.

    I’d be interested to hear if other regions see the same issue.

      • Yes I agree with person who said, when a person volunteer because they need credit hours, the passion is not there. In that sense volunteering is more of a convenience than a heart felt contribution to society.
        Also , the reality is people néed to out food on the table. Volunteering is unpaid labor, something most younger, underpaid and overworked people cannot afford. If you are going to be screened just like a paid position, why not get paid for your time and energy. At the end of the day volunteer work is free labor.

  7. Volunteers are pickier than they used to be. You can see that just in this comment thread. Organizations that are used to having volunteers come in “whenever” and do “whatever is needed” will fail to connect with modern volunteers who want to come in on their schedule and do work that is personally meaningful to them. It’s easier to find a pro bono technology consultant than someone who is willing to stuff envelopes these days. But there’s only so many technology consultants any one organization needs, even if they are “free”.

  8. I have experienced frustration with some non-profit organizations not getting back to me when I answered their request; however, I have found a home tutoring GED at an adult high school, and another with the VITA tax volunteer program.
    Our county has GED classes five days a week day and night during the school year; I go two days for five hours each and two nights for two hours each. This program requires a background check, as do others, so a person can’t just walk in and start.
    The VITA program has me at one site on Tuesdays and another on Fridays. These are 5-6 hour days, about right for me.
    Our RSVP is active and appreciated by the county leadership. They sometimes have one-off projects.

    • As a volunteer coordinator, I always strive to return a call or email from a potential volunteer within 24 hours if at all possible. I have heard from several volunteers at my agency that they tried to volunteer elsewhere and no one responded to them. That confounds me.
      Would the agency not return a phone call from a potential donor who wanted to donate the cash equivalent of that time, energy and expertise?

      It is also incumbent upon the agency to provide a detailed description of the nature of all volunteer positions and to be clear what the agency’s expectations are of any volunteer – there is often extensive training and a level of commitment that is required.

      One of the comments below also mentioned that agencies have to have dedicated resources to having a well run volunteer program. I think that is a real key, an organization must be willing to dedicate resources to making their volunteer program a successful one.

      • Yes, the chances of bringing in a volunteer are much greater if you call right away. Many times, volunteer services is under-staffed and too far behind to catch up.

  9. Earlier this year, I attempted to volunteer for a non-profit organization. However, the organization advertised for a certain position that attracted my attention of which I qualified for. After I was selected, the organization downgraded the position; limited the number of volunteer hours from four to a possible two hours per week, and required that I sign a contract agreement of many stipulations. This was not going to work for me because I live approximately 26 miles one-way from the organization’s office. Needless to say, I did not accept the volunteer position.

    • I have had the same experience you had. The travel time was more costly than if I just donated the cost to them. I want my time to count and it sounds like that is what you want also. All I can say is hang in there and you’ll find the one that you have talents for and it will be as rewarding as I have found in the one I finally settled on.

  10. I have been unable to find an opportunity that takes advantage of my skills and is local. As a retired business person (IT system design, people management, outside sales, technical sales, organizational skills, public speaking, etc.) I believe I have something more to offer than “rolling labels, e.g. making little rolls of labels out of big rolls of labels” and other necessary by incredibly uninteresting tasks that could be done by elementary school children. While my technical writing skills are good, trying to re-write out-dated brochures in 4-hour per week increments was frustrating and non-productive.

  11. People are working beyond retirement age because of the economy. They don’t have time to volunteer or only have time to volunteer in a limited way. At our hospital we do not require as many volunteer as we have had in the past. Patients are able to request food thru computers. Volunteers are getting older and cannot volunteer as many hours or drive to and from after dark. We are finding some younger volunteers are interested…sometimes age is as barrier depending on age like too young!

  12. I know I am disappointed in the organization that I thought I was going to volunteer for. The information said they had many different times to volunteer but they only advertise 12-3 M-F. I work and I cannot take off for regular volunteering. I was looking for after 5 or on the weekends. I even searched for places that were on my way home from work so that I could get there faster thus allowing for at least a little more flexibility. So, I am on the hunt again. I want to volunteer, I believe in it. But I have obligations too and I think many are in the same boat.

  13. After relocating to a new area about 50 miles from where I had been, I settled in and then put my mind to finding volunteer opportunities near my new home. There are many great organizations near me that had posting for volunteers, but I have had a very difficult time connecting with them. I contacted three different organizations (hospitals, veterans, etc) through both volunteer match and through the volunteer page on their own websites, but all went unanswered. All had volunteer opportunities for nights or weekends. Finally on the third try I got a response from one organization, who had time slots for my schedule but I would need to take time off of work to “train” for them. Even then, I never heard back after I responded with a question. Another organization wanted application, interview and training time all during the work day. After my experiences in the past year I would have to say that the decreasing numbers are at least in part due to the organizations themselves. They often offer limited time frames for both contact and training, even though the actual volunteerism needed may be for weekends or evenings. There is a large segment of the population that will be in the work force longer than our parents were, yet our families are raised so we still have much to offer the volunteer community in our “off” hours. I do volunteer on a smaller scale now, but would have been willing to do so much more. I can see why someone could try and then get “turned off” by the lack of response.

    • I have found this to be incredibly frustrating as well. There are multiple organizations I have repeatedly tried to contact in order to volunteer, but to no avail. I work 7-5 Monday through Friday, and that also limits my opportunties. I feel like it shouldn’t be so difficult to donate my time. I would really like to help.

  14. Has the been any research comparing the drop in volunteering against the increasing crime rate? Or the increase in bullying? Or the decline in belief in God/church attendance? Or the rise in apathy?
    It seems to me that most people who volunteer do so for altruistic reasons. We as a nation have become increasingly self-centered and sadly, this is all the more true of many young people who have a sense of entitlement. The whats-in-it-for-me attitude is more prevalent. That doesn’t bode well for volunteering. I am thinking that, coupled with the option of spending one’s hours of extra time on social media and other online pursuits, is at the heart of the problem. And sadly, it doesn’t look promising for any upturn in the future.

  15. I signed up to become an Ombudsman. I took the required training however, the program focused more on the program managers’ own personal choices rather than what was best for the residents. I really wanted to continue with the program however, the county program apparently forgot that I was a VOLUNTEER.

  16. I’m puzzled by the downturn in the numbers. I volunteer as a conversational English instructor and tutor for the last three years at the Glendale library. I’m always looking for instructors and tutors, it is not a difficult position but we struggle to find people willing to teach English. I’m asked how much they pay? I then explain what being a volunteer means for them and the immigrants they teach but it’s a tough sell. In Glendale we are treated with respect and perceived as valuable assets to the library
    which is not always that case at other volunteer positions I have held. You should profile what a good volunteer looks like and pursue people that profile the same.

  17. The amount of time needed for many volunteers is exorbitant. Technology needs to be better used for to help volunteers to work. Webex should be used to help volunteers and those who need to be helped remotely.

  18. November 2015 I applied to volunteer at Veteran clinic in Hudson Florida. I met with the volunteer coordinator, filled out application and giving my resume. Within the week I drove to Tampa VA did background check and received ID for volunteering. Today is April 3 2016 and I have yet to start volunteering. I have called numerous times and stopped at the Hudson clinic and either told the coordinator is busy but trying to put a training together. Nothing so far.
    so when you question why the decline in volunteering take a look at the people that are paid to get volunteers. Apparently our services aren’t important.
    I have moved on to volunteer somewhere else.

  19. Personally, I could not volunteer at first because there was so few opportunities to volunteer in my area. The places where all of the opportunities were at involved traveling to another city which also requires you to have transportation and if you are inexperienced and unemployed that is out of reach. But thanks to the virtual option on volunteermatch.org I was able to do a lot of voluntary work and I did not even have to leave my town.

  20. This shift may because fewer people go to church these days.I am not sure. I have noticed the drop in volunteerism in some places, too. I really enjoy most of the volunteering that I do!!!

    • I am a volunteer coordinator and also involved in my church. I have the same problem finding volunteers as the church has finding volunteers. Is there a common thread as to why?

      I believe there have been many good comments. I have not seen this one yet. Has our society become conditioned to believe that government will somehow take care of the needy? They may not realize there are so many gaps.

      Some agencies that may want to use volunteers may have a lot of time consuming guidelines that hinder them from responding effectively and timely to potential volunteers.

      I have found that a volunteer opportunity needs to be meaningful and time efficient.

      One positive in my Adult Education volunteer program lately was with a routine job that I was not having much success in finding a volunteer to do. I stumbled onto the local high school life skills students who were thrilled to do the job. They helped us and we helped the teacher in finding a life skill activity for her class.

      I think we need to be looking not just for how our needs will be met but how we can work together to fill the needs of others in our community with our volunteer opportunities.

  21. A great American President once said,
    “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
    (John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961)

    We are GREAT as a nation when we seek to give of ourselves instead expecting (and demanding) that others give to us.

    Over the last decade, the “volunteerism” way of thinking has changed 180 degrees and been replaced with a spirit of entitlement that weakens the spirit of America.

    A positive, renewed spirit is coming – a new kind of hope and change!

  22. I feel volunteering is going down because many volunteer coordinator do not have a clue…being a volunteer coordinator is about being a human resource manager, not just someone who knows about logistics and can direct people. I also think that non-profits are asking way to much time and resources to volunteer…and have little perks and thank yous.

  23. I could be very wrong in my opinion, but I feel if the volunteer is welcomed, valued, and encouraged to contribute and make a difference to the position and or organization, they would be much more inclined to continue to volunteer while promoting the opportunities to others. All too often, it is hard for people to put themselves in new situations no matter at what age a person volunteers. If the person is met with a cool reception, indecision, lack of enthusiasm, or any other barrier to the volunteer feeling they have made the right decision, the volunteer will feel let down and question his/her decision to give of their time and talents. On the other hand, a volunteer opportunity that welcomes it’s volunteers with open arms and a philosophy that seeks to incorporate the volunteer into the “name recognition” status of the organizational structure develops an environment of inclusivity. There is no replacement for personal contact

  24. Why is volunteerism declining? 1. More and more retirees need an income. The volunteers have found a needed job.
    2. It is difficult to find some place to volunteer. I looked at many areas and finally found a place to volunteer. It isn’t easy to find some one place to give a few hours that matches your free time. Some places do not want a volunteer that has a brain. Some places want you to do almost nothing and consider it volunteering. You need to explain what is wanted, what is needed for the organization. Many volunteers will walk away if the job is not explained properly.
    3. Volunteers want to be able to have some satisfaction of a job well done at the end of the volunteer time.
    4. I will assist an organization with almost anything as long as I understand what is needed and if I am physically able to complete the job at hand.

  25. For me, very few volunteer opportunities call for only things I can do. I’m disabled enough that very little travel is practical. I’m not at my best dealing with many people at a time. As for donations, I already get at least a hundred times as much in donation requests as I can afford. I’m looking into opportunities that can be handled entirely online with skills I already have; rather few available

  26. I believe the internet plays a part in the drop in volunteering. Some people may want to volunteer just for the companionship of others, or to relieve boredom. The internet satisfies both those needs with social gaming and comment boards such as this one, let alone the endless amount of information available online. It’s like having a library in the comfort of your own home.

  27. I think it has a lot to do with organizations aren’t offering the opportunities that volunteers want. They have less time and have more demands in their lives and want opportunities where they can really utilize their skills. They want short term opportunities that only require them to come in every so often- if at all. Unless you have a solid reputation in your community, you’re hard pressed to find people who want to come in weekly for 4-6 hours a week for 6 months to a year. I work with 2 not for profits- one is much larger than the other, the larger organization I am almost turning people away where as the smaller one I sometimes feel as though we’re begging people to volunteer with us.

  28. I believe it’s a combination of factors. One I recently ran up against with one of my recently retired adult friends was the fact that the volunteer coordinator was not clear about the volunteer positions job responsibilities. This was this retired persons first attempt at volunteering. While she started the job with title as “hospitality host” for this non profit in which she was expecting to greet guests answer phone and do various office duties she ended up doing mostly cleaning of the facility. Light house keeping duties were mentioned in her interview, but they had her deep cleaning bathrooms, floors, windows etc. After this experience she is now more “gun shy” about volunteering. The newly retired Boomers are very particular about what they want to do. Volunteer coordinators also need to have the appropriate training on how to deal with these types of volunteers. The non profit also does need more financial resources so they can hire a person to do their deep cleaning.

  29. As per my experience it can be a lack of awareness and appreciation. Now a days I found that person before joining the volunteering they ask about the pros and cons and some organizations fail to explain it properly.

  30. The online communities allow for a lot of discussion and re-posting of cause related subject matter. It seems like conversation and sharing replaces doing in many cases, and probably feels like “doing something” when, in fact, it is not actually activism or volunteer work. How many people feel they have supported an organization or cause when they have re-tweeted or posted with a hashtag, and then not done anything further like donate or volunteer? It can be easy to see why they might feel they have been active/done their part.

    • I used to volunteer about 20 hours or more a week. I just burned out. I volunteered to make friends and to make a difference. I saw neither. I felt so unappreciated. Most people are already dealing with stressful situations in their own lives, so they don’t want to volunteer and add more stress dealing with other people’s problems. Volunteering needs to add some sense of JOY besides accomplishment. People volunteer to connect with others and make friends, but are often working alone, never connecting with any one! I prefer to be rewarded by meeting with friends for music and dancing at a bar once in awhile. Or something fun like that. It doesn’t have to be paid for. But that’s just me

  31. I think people only want to do certain tasks as volunteers and what they want to do may not match the need of the organization. For our organization everyone wants to come play with the dogs, but our dogs have very structured training to become service dogs. The people that want to volunteer don’t have the skills to train and don’t want to dedicate the time to learn. Also, people want to volunteer at the times they decide (like weekends or after 5 pm). If the npo has business hours that align with 8-5 business hours, the volunteers either can’t or don’t want those times.

  32. Pingback: The U.S. Volunteer Rate is Still Dropping. Why? « CauseHub

  33. Could it be that volunteering has gone down along with the unemployment rate? I seem to recall that the rate of volunteering went way up when the Great Recession happened, and more people were out of work.

    • I agree; some of the decline can be attributed to lower unemployment. We benefited from many volunteers looking to build their resumes while searching for work. They’re at work now and I’m looking for volunteers again.

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