Volunteerism up at United Way, down in U.S.

The rate of volunteerism has grown at local United Ways in the U.S. but dropped in the U.S. overall, a new report from United Way Worldwide says.

Most volunteers are not volunteering for work likely to make the most impact in addressing priority community needs, says Volunteering: The Force Multiplier for Community Change.

And most United Way CEOs expect the pace of volunteering to continue to grow this year, it says.

Including volunteers engaged directly by local United Ways and those recruited for community partnerships among local agencies and United Ways, the number of United Way volunteers grew to 2.68 million in 2012 from 2.32 million in 2006, an increase of 15.5 percent, the report says.

That compares to an increase of 5.4 percent to 64.5 million volunteers from 61.2 million over the same period in the U.S. overall, it says.

The number of volunteers engaged directly by local United Ways grew to 1.3 million in 2012 from 1.05 million in 2002, or an increase of 23.8 percent, compared to an increase of 9 percent from 59.2 million volunteers in the U.S. overall during the same period.

The share of Americans age 16 and over who volunteer fell from 27.5 percent in 2002 to 25.4 percent in 2013 — its lowest point since the federal government began collecting data 12 years ago, the report says.

While the declining share of people volunteering may reflect the fact that the U.S. population has grown, the number of actual volunteers grew 9 percent from 2002 through 2012, the report says.

And in a survey of 74 United Way CEOs in the U.S. and abroad, 73 percent predicted volunteering will continue to grow in the next year.

Mentoring and tutoring

Eighty-nine percent of United Way CEOs said spending time as a mentor is the act of volunteering that generates the most lasting results for individuals and communities, and 62 percent said tutoring and teaching struggling students also is critical.

Yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 7 percent of American volunteers’ main donated work last year involved mentoring, and 10 percent of volunteer activity was related to tutoring or teaching, United Way says.

Another 11 percent involved collecting, preparing, distributing or serving food,; 10 percent involved fundraising; 8 percent involved general labor or transportation; and 7 percent involved serving  on boards.

Nationally, over 300,000 people have signed up on the volunteer website at United Way, which has been working to recruit volunteer readers, tutors and mentors for struggling students.


Sixty-one percent of United Way CEOs say local employers are the best source for boosting volunteering and creating opportunities on a scale needed to improve communities, the report says.

According to The State of Health of Corporate Volunteering from the International Association for Volunteer Effort, companies throughout the world increasingly are focusing their volunteer work on specific priorities, applying all their resources — human, financial, in-kind and relational — to maximize their impact on a broad range of human, social and environmental problems, United Way says.

Personal connections

Still, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, top-down requests from employers are less effective than volunteer requests from co-workers or from people within a volunteer organization, United Way says.

People are roughly as likely to become involved with a volunteer organization through personal outreach and explanation as through someone asking them to get involved, it says.

Of those being asked to volunteer, it says, nine in 10 will become a regular volunteer when asked by a relative, friend or someone at the volunteer organization.

Schools and faith communities

In the survey, half the United Way CEOs said educational institutions are crucial players in the effort to enlist more volunteers, and 43 percent said religious communities were strong volunteer partners.

One-third of Americans volunteer most of their time through their faith communities, a trend that is even great among older volunteers., United Way says.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it says, 42.9 percent of volunteers age 65 and older did their volunteering mainly through or for a religious organization, compared to 26.8 percent of volunteers age 16 to 24.

The decline in  volunteerism could be connected to the slowdown in regular religious attendance over the decades, the report suggests.

According to Gallup, nearly four in 10 Americans say they attended religious services in the past seven days, compared to nearly five in 10 in the mid-1950s.

Gender and parenthood

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship, women continue to volunteer significantly more than men across all demographic divides, United Way says.

And working mothers continue to volunteer at a significantly higher rate than the population overall.

Among parents with children under age 18 volunteered, 33.5 percent volunteered, compared to 26.5 percent of the population overall and 23.8 percent of individuals without children.

Todd Cohen

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