More than a quarter of Americans spent some of their time lending a helping hand last year.
That good news kept the rate of nationwide volunteering at historically high levels: Some 61.2 million people dedicated 8.1 billion hours of service to schools; hospitals; and religious, political, and youth groups in 2006, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS).
The bad news is that the number of volunteers recently dipped significantly – by one third – from 2005.
A key reason: Nonprofits and other groups that rely on volunteers are having trouble retaining them.
"The demographics are such that we are poised to make this 30-year high get even better because the baby-boom generation is passing the traditional age of retirement," says David Eisner, CEO of CNCS. The group aims to raise the number of adult volunteers to 75 million by 2010.
"At the same time," he says, "our work is cut out for us because, nationally, the volunteer bucket is a bit leaky. We get a lot each year, but we lose a lot each year. We have to figure out how to plug those holes." Commuting time, education, and home ownership all play roles in determining how much time people are likely to spend helping organizations that need support, according to the CNCS's national study of America's top 50 cities based on census data between 2004 and 2006.
Cities' volunteering rates vary
For example, in Minneapolis, where home ownership is high and neighbors stay connected, volunteerism is nearly 41 percent.
But in Los Angeles, where people spend more time alone in their cars than talking over the back fence, volunteerism is about 22 percent.
In Portland, Ore., where almost 90 percent of residents over age 25 have completed high school, the volunteer rate is nearly 36 percent.
In Riverside, Calif., where only 75 percent of people over age 25 have a high school degree, the number of folks willing to help for free is about 21 percent.
American volunteers tend to participate in one of four types of activities: fundraising, serving food, general labor – including highway maintenance and construction – and tutoring. But more groups that rely on volunteers say they are having a hard time keeping many who sign up.
"Our surveys show that the biggest hurdle to getting a volunteer to stay involved is that they felt ineffective in their use of time," says Rob Wallace, a spokesman for Keep America Beautiful, a national nonprofit public education organization that seeks to improve community environments. "Everyone is extremely busy today, so if they begin to feel their volunteer time is sucking the life out of them without giving them satisfaction, they get jaded and want to quit."
Often this happens because volunteer programs are not being run effectively, experts say.
"Most nonprofits … if they got a million dollar grant, they would put their CEO in charge of it," says Sandy Scott, spokesman for CNCS. "But at the same time they might have $5 million worth of volunteers at work but they are being run by an intern or busy receptionist. We are trying to change that."
More groups are now teaching nonprofit organizations how to help guarantee volunteer satisfaction in part by working with their busy schedules.
"We help them plan flexible projects for times that volunteers have free, or in geographical areas where they are already commuting to or that deal with such facts [such as] they don't have much money to get around," says Ariel Zwang, executive director of New York Cares, which helps 850 nonprofit agencies, public schools, and others create projects for volunteers.
Some states, like Minnesota, have an association of volunteer administrators, who provide training of volunteer leaders. "We have an actual infrastructure here that supports volunteerism, which other [states] don't," says Bob Jackson, who is CNCS's Minnesota state director.
Why some areas have higher rates
The levels of local, state, and federal financial commitment are key to making a city work well for volunteers, experts say.
"Volunteering doesn't happen in a vacuum," says Shawn Lecker-Pomaville, executive director of the Nevada Commission for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps programs. "It takes resources and oversight and management and public policies to support it. This state could do a lot more."
In the CNCS study, Las Vegas was ranked the lowest among the top 50 cities, having a volunteering rate of 14 percent.
It's crucial to develop a culture of connectedness, too. "Here in the Midwest, helping each other is just something we do," says Beth Erickson, a business consultant in suburban Minneapolis who volunteers at least twice a week at her church in St. Paul. "I have long surmised that we volunteer up here on the frozen tundra because our lives quite literally can depend on it," she says.
Compassion fatigue is one reason Dr. Erickson believes volunteerism has dropped.
"Our nightly news is riddled with very few good news stories. Wars, corporate and political scandals and ethical breaches have made us not only weary but also wary of others. So a "bunker mentality" has developed, where people keep to themselves and don't worry about anything but insulating themselves from the world and the latest bad news. We simply have to turn that around," she says.
People must constantly remind others that one person can make a big difference, says Cathy Lanyard, executive director of American Friends of Alyn Hospital in New York.
"Each person has to know that good begets good," she says. "There was that movie called, 'Pay it Forward' about one person doing one good thing for someone else. It's not brain surgery. It's as easy as tipping over a domino."