Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
Many factors influence people's attitudes about community service organizations, including whether or not they know those groups exist.
Across the United States, volunteer groups and nonprofits seek to improve the lives of the most needy in communities, often patching together holes in the social safety net on a hyperlocal level. Small, grassroots organizations, sometimes run by church-related groups, distribute such basic necessities as food and clothing. Local branches of more established, national organizations offer organized services to children and teens. But for these organizations to work, those in need—and those who support them—first need to know that they exist.
And that’s a tricky thing. Asked about how active these sorts of organizations were in their own communities, the 1,656 Americans contacted for our Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll had very different impressions. Race, income, and political party affiliation in particular all appear to play a role in how people view the activity and presence of volunteer organizations in their communities. But personal experience working with or receiving services from them seems to be the truest test of attitudes about them.
Perceptions about community volunteer activity break drastically along racial lines. Overall, whites are far more likely, at 83 percent, to say organizations are “very active” or “somewhat active” where they live. Only 67 percent of non-white respondents felt as strongly. On the flip side of the same question, 29 percent of non-whites polled felt that these types of organizations are not very active or not active at all where they live. Only 14 percent of whites felt the same way.
The experience of living in a city versus in a less densely populated area doesn’t appear to affect perceptions of charitable or nonprofit activity as much as race. An active community-group presence was reported by 84 percent of white city-dwellers and 82 percent of whites who live outside of cities. Only 67 percent of minorities who live in cities report a good connection to volunteer groups, virtually the same percentage as the 68 percent of minorities living outside of cities who said the same. That group was twice as likely as whites in similar communities to feel that volunteer organizations aren’t very active or visible. The racial divide is stark in terms of negative perceptions: Ten percent of minorities in cities and 13 percent in more rural areas say they don’t see an active volunteer presence at all in their communities, while only 2 percent of urban whites and 3 percent of those outside cities feel such a dearth.
What other factors could influence these feelings? Having a higher income generally correlated with having a high opinion of community group engagement. When asked to comment on the activity of their local nonprofit and volunteer organizations, 85 percent of those who reported a total household income of $75,000 or more said they believed those groups were very or somewhat active. Meanwhile, only 67 percent of those who made less than $30,000 last year said the same. This division holds across community types, as both urban and non-urban higher income households held more favorable opinions of these groups than urban and non-urban lower-income households.
When it came to political party affiliation, 72 percent of self-identified Democrats reported a positive perspective on nonprofit groups where they live, compared with 86 percent of Republicans. Getting deeper into the numbers, 17 percent of Democrats reported these types of groups were not very active where they live, and another 9 percent said the groups weren’t active at all. (Independents, as you might expect, were somewhere in the middle.)
What might be influencing these attitudes? In at least some cases, respondents cited the experience of being in need and having difficulty finding services. We spoke to a Democrat and a Republican, both living on disability insurance, who had differing opinions of volunteer visibility where they live.
Helen Francis, 71, a Democrat from the city of Shreveport, Louisiana, responded to our poll with the lowest possible opinion on visible volunteer organizations in her area. “I don’t see too much of anything around here,” she says. Even her church doesn’t do volunteer work that she knows of.
Karen Campbell, 48, a Republican from rural Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, responded with a high opinion of the visibility of services in her town. It's worth noting that the help she receives herself is highly organized and regulated—through the state’s Aging and Disability Resource Center, which pays a friend to provide live-in care.
Both women, however, agree that services are hardly advertised to the people who need them most. For Francis, help with grocery shopping would be welcome, but she hadn’t heard of anything like that offered nearby, and didn’t know how she’d find out more information. “They would have to call me about it and take me to the grocery store,” she says.
Campbell, who gets groceries from local food pantries that she knows of only because they are connected to her old elementary school, would also love to know more about similar programs. “I’d want to hear about it through the mail, or a phone call, though,” she says. “I have so much junk coming through my email I won’t ever get it.”