Slim Rise in U.S. Volunteer Rates No Match for Huge Rise in Federal Spending on Volunteering

Build Brigade, Homes for Our Troops
Build Brigade, Homes for Our Troops

If no news is good news during tough times, then even slightly optimistic news is a beacon of hope, right?

That’s what the results of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest report on U.S. volunteer rates suggest, says the Corporation for National and Community Service. The $1.15 billion federal agency is promoting the BLS figures this week.

But despite some definite improvements — particularly in light of a severe recession — the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

In a press release with the heady headline “Volunteering Up Amid Tough Economic Times,” Stephen Goldsmith, board chair of the Corporation, says “We’re seeing a compassion boom across this country, where communities are banding together and neighbors are reaching out in service to others. It is truly the generosity of the American spirit at its best. The need is great, the momentum is strong, and potential is unlimited for ushering in a new era of service in America.”

So what does a compassion boom look like? Here are the numbers:

And some highlights:

  • 1.5 million more Americans say they volunteered between September 2008 and September 2009 than during the previous year.
  • The total number who reported volunteering was 63.4 million people (26.8% of the population), compared to 61.8 million in 2008.
  • Volunteer rates for women increased from 29.4% to 30.1%.
  • People with full-time jobs showed a .9% increase in their volunteer rate.
  • Volunteer rates among unemployed men increased just 1.2%.
  • Those between ages of 35 and 54 were the most likely to volunteer.

If you only keep your eye on the slim rise from 2008 to 2009, you’ll definitely miss the big picture. Three recent years, including the recession year of 2003 (not pictured), all saw higher volunteer rates than last year.

Where would today’s volunteer rate be without the new 9-11 Day of Service, an historic MLK Day of Service, President Obama’s volunteer initiative,, or the recession? It’s impossible to say. But before these expensive national service programs existed (and before the Corporation’s budget swelled by $260 million thanks to the Serve America Act) more Americans were volunteering.

And yet don’t let these results burst your benevolent bubble. Instead, we can use them to help focus our attention on programs that really have made a difference. At VolunteerMatch, 2009 was a banner year.

We’re working on our Annual Report now, but some early highlights show real progress, including a 20% rise in volunteer referrals to 677,000 for the year, 10.4% more visitors, and nearly 20% more participating organizations. Our budget? Less than $4 million.

Where Nonprofits Fit In

To get more great volunteers, great nonprofits have to get into the mix.  Take advantage of the rise in volunteerism at VolunteerMatch by posting your opportunities today.

Also, be sure to take part in our free Webinars to ensure your volunteer program has the quality to match the quantity.

Register for VolunteerMatch 101 on February 3rd, Best Practices for Recruiting Online on February 2nd, or learn more about recruiting a new generation of older adult volunteers  with our next Boomer Volunteer Engagement Webinar, taking place February 24th.