Volunteering: History of an American Value

In honor of National Volunteer Week, let's take a look at the history of volunteering in AmericaNext week is National Volunteer Week, and we hope you’ll join us and spend some time thinking about the significant role volunteers have played, and are still playing, in our country overall. In the days to come, we’re going to be focusing on volunteer engagement, recognition, inspiration and more. But first, let’s consider just how deeply volunteering is a part of who we are as a nation.

A Brief History of Volunteering in America

This country has relied on volunteers from its start: Colonists banded together to survive the harsh New World, forming support groups to help each other plant crops, build houses and fight disease. Benjamin Franklin developed the first volunteer firehouse in 1736, an idea that has become the country’s norm, as more than 70% of all firefighters today are volunteers. And during the Revolutionary War, patriotic citizens volunteered to organize boycotts against British imports and raise funds for the war efforts, and of course there were the famous “minute men,” who were a volunteer militia.

It wasn’t until the Great Awakening in the 19th century that formal charitable organizations started cropping up. Inspired by religious revival, people became more aware of the disadvantaged, and the YMCA, American Red Cross and the United Way were all born in response.

Volunteers also played an important role in the Civil War, as groups such as Ladies’ Aid Societies were created to make bandages, shirts, towels, bedclothes, uniforms and tents.

The 20th century was when mainstream volunteerism really began to flourish, shaping the volunteer and nonprofit organizations that we recognize today. The Rotary Club, Kiwanis and the Lions Club were all established within the first few decades of the 1900s.

One of the first nationwide efforts to coordinate volunteers was in response to the Great Depression, including work by Volunteers of America. The first Volunteer Bureau was founded in Minneapolis, MN in 1919 and became part of the Volunteer Center National Network, which today reaches 170 million people in thousands of cities across the nation.

During World War II, volunteers were active in the military and on the home front. Thousands of volunteer offices took part in coordinating volunteers in collecting supplies, entertaining soldiers on leave and caring for the injured. After the war, major developments including the Peace Corps and President Lyndon B Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1964 started the expansion of volunteer opportunities that continues today.

Volunteering Today

Within the past few years, you could say volunteering has essentially become a national pastime. In 2011 volunteering reached its highest level since 2006, as Americans volunteered nearly 8 billion hours of their time to local and national causes. Today nearly one in four Americans, an estimated 64.3 million people, have served as volunteers.

The Internet has played a huge role in engaging volunteers, allowing people to find opportunities in their own communities through online resources such as VolunteerMatch. It’s also created the possibility of virtual volunteering, where organizations can utilize the skills of volunteers anywhere in the world. Another growing trend is microvolunteering, in which people volunteer to perform small tasks online, usually to promote a campaign or raise awareness for a cause.

It’s safe to say that volunteering is part of America’s present as well as it’s past. And looking at how Americans volunteer and why, it’s clear that while the “how” has changed throughout history, the desire to help one another will always be a part of the nation’s legacy.

Want to know more about the history of volunteering? Here are some of the sources that were used for this article:

What do you think about the role volunteering has played U.S. history?

Upcoming Nonprofit Insights: Who is Volunteering in America? A Data Dive with the Corporation for National and Community Service

The Nonprofit Insights webinar series brings major thought leaders and experts to you for thought-provoking presentations on a variety of issues related to technology and engaging your community members for social good.

Nonprofit Insights webinar on volunteering in America with the Corporation for National and Community ServiceWho is volunteering in America? How much do they volunteer, and with what organizations? How can nonprofits best engage Americans in their causes?

The new report from the Corporation for National and Community Service, “Volunteering and Civic Life in America,” has some answers. Drawn from the most recent U.S. Census Bureau surveys of tens of thousands of households, the report and its accompanying website show how cities, states, age groups and other demographics rank and interact when it comes to volunteering and community involvement.

What does this mean for nonprofits? How can you use this data to increase support for your organization’s efforts? Why does it matter that parents volunteer at a higher rate than non-parents, or that two out of every three Americans are volunteering informally in their communities?

Who is Volunteering in America? A Data Dive with the Corporation for National and Community Service

Register for this free event.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
11am – 12pm PT (2-3pm ET)

Follow along with the conversation on Twitter: @VolunteerMatch and #vmlearn.

For this month’s Nonprofit Insights webinar, join VolunteerMatch President Greg Baldwin for a special conversation with Dr. Christopher Spera, Director of Research & Evaluation at the Corporation for National and Community Service. They will discuss the history of this research report, the trends it reveals, and the many ways nonprofits can make best use of the information contained within.

About Our Speakers:

Dr. Christopher Spera, Director of Research and Evaluation for the Corporation for National and Community ServiceDr. Christopher Spera, an experienced senior executive and applied social science researcher and evaluator, is currently the Director of Research and Evaluation for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Dr. Spera develops and oversees the agency’s diverse research and evaluation portfolio. He manages a staff of 8-10 researchers with advanced degrees, represents the agency to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and interfaces with the research community. He is currently overseeing 10+ studies, including randomized controlled trials (RCTs), quasi-experimental studies, piloting of agency performance measures, longitudinal studies, etc.

Currently, he is heavily involved with leading groundbreaking studies and evaluations of CNCS’ major programs, including AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and the Social Innovation Fund (SIF). He is also involved in conducting an annual survey to measure volunteering and civic engagement through a supplement to the current population survey (CPS) administered by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dr. Spera leads a CNCS research agenda rooted in a “research-to-practice model” whereby research results are used to inform program and policy decisions, thereby infusing best practices into everyday program operations. Dr. Spera has over 20+ peer-reviewed publications and holds his Ph.D. in Human Development and Educational Psychology from the University of Maryland.

Greg Baldwin, President of VolunteerMatchGreg Baldwin joined what is now VolunteerMatch in the spring of 1998 as its Chief Imagination Officer to finish hotwiring the Internet to help everybody find a great place to volunteer. Today, VolunteerMatch is a leader in the nonprofit world. Its popular web service is strengthening communities and organizations across the country by making it easier for good people and good causes to connect.

Greg appreciates the power of a big idea. He began his career at the Leo Burnett advertising agency where many big ideas were born and later tested his own as a co-founder of 2d Interactive, Inc. — a Boston-based technology start-up. Greg completed his undergraduate studies at Brown University in 1990 with a degree in Public Policy.

He is a life-long volunteer and regularly speaks at nonprofit events and conferences on the subjects of volunteering, communication, and the Internet. He is also proud to serve as the Board Chair of the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration.

Register for this Nonprofit Insights webinar now.

How a Deeper Data Dive into the Latest U.S. Volunteering Report Will Help Your Volunteer Program

Take a deep dive into volunteer dataWith the recent release of the newest “Volunteering and Civic Life in America” report from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), bloggers and data nerds across the volunteering sector started rubbing their hands together in anticipation of all the new nuggets to dissect. This included me (although I won’t admit to whether I fall under “blogger” or “data nerd.”)

A High Level Look

At first glance, the data released by CNCS documenting volunteering in 2011 holds many similarities to that of 2010 and earlier. These big-picture numbers tend to remain in the same ballpark from year to year.

For example, the number of total volunteers remained more or less steady, increasing from 62.8 million to 64.3 million. Additionally, the volunteer rate in 2011 was identical to that in 2009 (26.8%).

In terms of state and city rankings, the major players are pretty much the same – Utah topped the list again, with Iowa and Minnesota also making appearances in the top five. Minneapolis was once again the most volunteer-y big city, with Seattle, Rochester and Salt Lake City also earning top spots.

Finally, the pattern of generational engagement in 2011 also looks very similar to 2010. Millennials, Gen Xer’s, Boomers and Older Adults all volunteered at basically the same rates as 2010, and Gen Xers were the most engaged once again, followed by Boomers, then Older Adults, and finally those self-absorbed Millennials.

Diving Deeper to Get Data for Your Organization

If the big picture of volunteering doesn’t change much from year to year, perhaps zooming in to check things out on a smaller scale will be helpful for organizations using this data to inform volunteer engagement efforts.

Using the well-built VolunteeringInAmerica.gov website, you can drill down to your nearest big city, your gender, your age and your organization’s cause area. Think about what the trends from 2011 in those smaller categories can tell you about how to engage volunteers moving forward in 2013. Here are some examples:


In terms of volunteer rates, Idaho’s ranking jumped from #9 to #2 between 2010 and 2011. The hours per volunteer, however, were the same. This means that more people are volunteering in Idaho. While all of the age groups saw a jump in volunteer rates, the biggest by far was in the Older Adults category. Clearly, something in Idaho is causing older adults to get more involved in volunteering. It may be in the water, but chances are it’s a government program, or increased financial aid for organizations that serve and engage older adults.

Learn from this bright spot! If your organization is in Idaho, consider how your nonprofit can reap some of these benefits and more aggressively engage older adults.

Portland, OR and Jacksonville, FL

Portland’s rankings in terms of volunteer rates dropped from #8 to #16, while Jacksonville jumped from #18 to #5. Neither of them have very high hours per resident, so there is a lot of one-time volunteering happening in these cities.

Perhaps Jacksonville has implemented some new civic engagement programs – is your organization aware of these, and participating? If your nonprofit is in Portland and has been having difficulty engaging volunteers, this data suggests that the problem could be larger than your organization’s strategies. It might be helpful to connect with other groups and see what their experiences have been.


While none of the generations saw a dramatic increase in volunteering from 2010 to 2011, Boomers did have a small bump in volunteer rate from 28.8% to 29.3%. Maybe the slow and meandering economic recovery is beginning to allow some of these Boomers to retire, and/or to spend more of their time volunteering. Either way, this small rise is evidence that Boomers are still, and will continue to be, an important target group for involving volunteers for your organization.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Volunteering and Civic Life in America data and report, stay tuned for a special Nonprofit Insights webinar over the next few months with the team at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

What does your data deep dive into VolunteeringInAmerica.gov tell you about engaging volunteers? Share it below!

(Photo from Ilse Reijs and Jan Noud-Hutten on Flickr.)

Volunteering vs. Giving: How Does Your State Stack Up?

Where does your state fall in the giving vs. volunteering spectrum?

From philanthropy.com

Last month the Chronicle of Philanthropy released “How America Gives,” a study showing how much money Americans give to charity by geographic location. This was presented in a cool interactive interface along with data about income levels, race distribution and age ranges for each area.

Last year the Corporation for National and Community Service released its updated 2011 data for Volunteering in America, showing volunteering trends, statistics, tools, resources and information for regions across the U.S.

Any data nerd would get itchy to compare these two studies, but of course there are problems: one data set is from 2010, one from 2011. The Chronicle study mainly looks at overall giving, while Volunteering in America presents volunteering rates as a proportion. Scientifically, it’s not the cleanest comparison.

Let’s do it anyway.

Looking at Totals

The three states that gave the most money overall in 2011 were California, New York and Texas. The three states that volunteered the most hours overall were California, Texas and Florida.

Notice a pattern? The issue with this sort of data is that it is completely based on population size. Of course California and Texas both gave a ton of time and money – they have millions more people than poor Rhode Island!

Giving in CA vs. NY

However, there’s something weird going on with New York, which didn’t make it to the top three for volunteering (this honor passed to Florida, the fourth most populous state.) Are New Yorkers just too busy to volunteer?

Looking at Per Capita

Let’s dive into the meatier numbers. The three states that volunteered the most hours per resident were Utah, Alaska and Idaho. The states that had the highest median charity donation were Utah, Alabama and Mississippi.

Utah is great!First off, let’s all give Utah a resounding round of applause. Nice work!

What’s the deal with the other five states? There is no noticeable pattern based on discretionary income levels (according to “How America Gives” data, that is all over the map, literally.) It doesn’t appear to be linked to population size or density, either.

So what is it about these states that has their residents giving and volunteering in such high numbers? And in a more general sense, what is it that gets people jazzed up to give their time and money?

We could spend years analyzing the differences and similarities across these states – by income levels, culture, geography, religion, political affiliation, education level… and unfortunately I don’t have time to do that AND manage online communications at VolunteerMatch.

But maybe we can start off simple: What do YOU think influences people most strongly to give time and/or money? Leave your thoughts below.

Finding the Right Volunteer Management Software

Guest post by Capterra

Finding the Right Volunteer Management Software

Searching for software can be tough. Capterra has some tips.

Although it may be hard to believe, our current struggling economy, high unemployment rates and slow job growth have an upside. According to the 2011 Volunteering in America report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteerism is on the rise as individuals respond to both the lack of jobs and growing needs within their communities. Individuals are giving back to their communities in numbers that are increasing annually.

Further, the professional skills of this new wave of volunteers are impressive. Gone are the days when volunteer staff was comprised of college kids looking to gain experience and retirees. Many of today’s volunteers are professionals with degrees and experience. Given this, it is more important than ever for nonprofit organizations to find ways to manage, utilize and maximize these amazing resources.

Managing volunteers effectively is imperative for any nonprofit. Including training for volunteers to introduce your organization, your projects and your expectations is an important first step. Identifying a person or a department to supervise the volunteer experience is also a critical part of any nonprofit structure.

Ensuring that there is a point person for volunteer questions, skill and schedule matching, and program evaluation is the final part of a complete volunteer management picture. However, it is important not to overlook the importance of software to organize your volunteers and their experiences.

Management Software is a Must

So when you are considering your technical capabilities, remember to include software that allows you to manage your volunteers. Optimizing this aspect of your organizational capacity is a critical part of any efficient nonprofit.

It is important to select software that will match volunteers and opportunities in a manner that maximizes the experience and the results. Software that has the ability to create a detailed catalog of volunteer interests, availability and skills will allow your staff to be more efficient and effective when working with volunteers.

For a nonprofit, an effective software system will include the ability to track volunteer involvement in addition to donors, clients and other supporters. This information and its details are important to developing an organization that fully integrates all the information that can contribute to your success.

Determine Your Needs

When researching volunteer management software packages, it is important to create a checklist of capabilities or features that you feel are critical to effectively managing your volunteers. A sample list of important tracking or management capabilities could include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Contact information (email, direct mail, phone numbers)
  • Interests and special skills
  • Volunteer participation in hours by project or event
  • Total number of volunteer hours completed by month/year
  • Evaluation or comments by staff

Your software should allow you to sort each category individually and run reports based on combinations of each field. For example, a report that creates a list of volunteers within a certain zip code with graphic design capabilities and an interest in working on events.

The ability to manage volunteer relationships can exist alongside the management of donors and members, but there should be specific language within the software description that indicates that it has volunteer management capabilities. Researching the many offerings can be challenging, but knowing the features that you need will help you narrow your options.


Idealware and TechSoup Global have produced A Consumers Guide to Software for Volunteer Management, which is a report available for free download.  This report contains an overview of features that are important for managing volunteers and donors, as well as short guide that examines a few systems and their features.

Manage Volunteers provides a searchable list of dozens of software packages related to volunteer management. This list includes brief descriptions and links to each company website.

Both of these resources can be a great first step in your investigation to find software that both suits your present needs and that can help you to expand your organizational capacity in the future.

Capterra helps you find and compare any kind of software for your business. With over 300 business software directories, from project management software to church management software, Capterra enables you to filter results based on your needs as well as view ratings and reviews submitted by your peers.