Stuff To Ponder: Who’s Volunteering? Who’s Not Volunteering?

VolunteerMatch’s Engaging Volunteers blog recently drew attention to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report (BLS) that shows volunteer rates are continuing to drop.

As the post author Tessa Srebro notes, the BLS report gives us a lot of statistics about what demographic groups are more likely to volunteer than others, but-

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.

There were a good number of comments to the Engaging Volunteers post and the number continues to grow. A large number of the commenters express frustration with the organizations they approached being un(der)prepared to train or employ them. Another common complaint was that the organizations wanted them to fulfill menial tasks rather than ones that challenged and engaged their interest.

I am not sure what the percentages have been in the past, but in this recent survey by BLS, the percentage of people who started volunteering after they were asked (41.2%) is almost exactly equal the number who were motivated to volunteer on their own (41.6%).

Given that this latter number represents those who are actively volunteering, it is possible that the percentage of people who are self-motivated to seek volunteer experiences is far larger than those who are motivated by the request of others. That 41.6% doesn’t include self-motivated people whose efforts were frustrated and are not volunteering.

As I have mentioned before, effectively utilizing free labor requires a significant investment of money, resources and attention.

There is a lot in the Engaging Volunteer’s post and the BLS report to consider and so much we don’t know about volunteers’ motivations. There seems to be an increasing desire to have a volunteer experiences be meaningful.

Thinking back to the Hewlett Foundation report I wrote on last month that suggested non-profit CEO’s were looking to continue working for a longer period of time with their organizations, albeit in a diminished role, perhaps it is not too far a reach to extrapolate that skilled professionals in general might desire to continue to apply their high level skills in a volunteer role after they enter retirement.

One last thing I wanted to point out for consideration is the breakdown of areas of interest for different demographic groups the BLS report shows. Knowing this might help your organization better design volunteer experiences for people. (Though you don’t want to stereotype.)

For example, while “Collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food was the activity volunteers performed most often” according to the BLS report,

…main activities differed among men and women. Men who volunteered were most likely to engage in general labor (12.3 percent); coach, referee, or supervise sports teams (9.3 percent); or collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (9.2 percent). Female volunteers were most likely to collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (12.9 percent); tutor or teach (10.6 percent); or fundraise (9.9 percent)

There are similar trends based on education level, marital status and whether people have kids.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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