COLLEGE PARK, Md. – While nonprofits have benefitted from record highs in volunteer hours and charitable fundraising totals, it’s a case of fewer people doing more, as the percentage of Americans who contribute time and money has fallen to its lowest point in two decades, according to a report released this week by the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute.
In the first-of-its-kind analysis of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report, “Where Are America’s Volunteers?,” examined adult civic engagement with community organizations in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and 215 metropolitan areas.
From 2002 through 2015, community organizations saw record highs in volunteer hours served (topping out at 8.7 billion in 2014) and in charitable dollars given ($410.02 billion in 2017). But since 2005, the national volunteer rate declined from 28.8 percent to a 15-year low of 24.9 percent in 2015. Similarly, the percentage of Americans giving to nonprofits annually declined from 66.8 percent in 2000 to 55.5 percent in 2014.
“As a nation, we must commit resources and time to the challenging work of putting more Americans back to work improving and engaging with their communities,” said Robert Grimm, director of the Do Good Institute, housed in the School of Public Policy, who co-wrote the report with Nathan Dietz, associate research scholar in the institute.
“Continued declines in community participation will produce detrimental effects for everyone, including greater social isolation, less trust in each other, and poor physical and mental health,” Grimm said.
The report also found that throughout the country, 31 states experienced significant declines in volunteering between 2004 and 2015; none saw a significant increase. Surprisingly, this drop is more prevalent in states historically rich in social capital, meaning highly engaged in social and civic affairs.
The data also suggest that rural and suburban areas, which historically have higher levels of social capital than urban areas, saw the biggest downturns in volunteer rates in recent years. Between 2004 and 2015, they fell more than 5 percentage points in rural areas, and nearly 5 percentage points in suburban areas.
These trends help explain why significant changes in volunteer rate occurred less often in metropolitan areas than at the state level. Between 2004–06 and 2013–15, 57 metro areas experienced a significant decrease, 147 experienced no change, and only 11 produced a significant increase in volunteering.
The analysis also found that volunteer rates tended to decline in metropolitan areas with fewer places to volunteer, in places where people may be less likely to know their neighbors (like large cities with lower homeownership rates and a higher percentage of multi-unit housing), and in places where there is more economic distress (from high unemployment to high poverty rates).