Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The terror attacks on September 11, 2001, inspired a national surge in civic spirit. But volunteering rates have been declining over the last two decades.
In the years following September 11, 2001, Americans made efforts to redefine the date of the nation’s most deadly terror attack as a day of national service and charitable giving. In 2009, the federal government officially designated 9/11 as the National Day of Service and Remembrance, encouraging the public to honor the victims by doing good in their communities. A decade later, a coalition of national service organizations led by MyGoodDeed, the nonprofit that advocated for the federal recognition, claims that more than 30 million Americans participate in some way each year, making the holiday the biggest event on America’s charitable calendar.
This annual spike in do-gooding was mirrored by a broader surge of post-9/11 civic service. The country’s overall volunteer rate reached 28.8 percent in 2003, according to a 2018 analysis of Census Bureau data by the Do Good Institute at University of Maryland. That was the highest rate the researchers recorded in the last two decades, and it remained at that level for three straight years.
But today, fewer Americans are volunteering their time and money on a regular basis, according to the report. The national volunteer rate has not surpassed 28.8 percent since 2005, and in 2015, it dipped to its lowest, at 24.9 percent.
“The decline is pervasive,” says Robert Grimm, director of the Do Good Institute and the lead author of the report. “Thirty-one states have experienced a decline in volunteering over the last decade; not one state saw an increase.”
While it’s easy to blame time and apathy, Grimm’s research has largely focused on the socioeconomic factors that might be driving down the ability or willingness of Americans to donate their time and money. He and his colleagues looked at the data for 215 metro areas and found that most experienced stagnant volunteering rates. Some metros saw a significant decrease, including Augusta, Georgia, and Provo, Utah, plus a quartet of of Michigan cities: Lansing, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Saginaw. Only 11 metros saw a significant increase in service-mindedness. Savannah, Georgia, for example, jumped from 20 percent to a 45 percent volunteerism rate; Ogden, Utah, went from 40 percent to a soaring 50 percent.
The federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service has its own ranking of the nation’s most volunteer-minded major cities: That list has Minneapolis on top this year, followed by Rochester, New York, and Salt Lake City.
While volunteer rates in rural areas and suburbs remain higher than in urban areas, according to Grimm’s research, the former two saw the steepest declines, narrowing the gaps among the three environments. Rural volunteering fell from 30.9 percent in 2003 to just 25.3 percent by 2015. In the suburbs, the rate over that same period fell from 30.1 percent to 25.3 percent.
Grimm says that was surprising given that, historically, rural areas rank higher on the social capital index—which measures how connected a community is based on 14 indicators, including how often residents volunteer in a given year, the number of civic and social organizations per 1,000 people, and how much members trust one another.
Researchers are still studying the reasoning and the behavioral changes behind that decline, but Grimm says one reason could be that certain opportunities for civic engagement in rural areas are disappearing. “If you think about it, the two main ways people volunteer are through churches and schools,” he tells CityLab. “And in rural areas, there have been consolidations of both, which could result in fewer opportunities and fewer civic organizations in those communities.”
Among the metro areas that saw a decline in volunteer rates, lower homeownership rates and higher levels of economic distress were a common theme. “You can imagine that if you buy a home in a community, you tend to be more anchored to it, and be in it long-term,” he says. “Historically, those kinds of behaviors have led people to be more engaged.”
Commuting time is also connected to how people give: The longer it takes people to get to work, the less time they spend on their community and civic obligations.
But American attitudes toward volunteering (both formally and informally, like helping a neighbor out) are complicated, and Grimm’s team will continue to study other factors. Upcoming research will look at, for example, the impact of when young adults obtain typical “life markers,” such as starting a family, and buying a home.
As I recently wrote, Millennials are delaying marriage and childbirth, and they face greater home-buying challenges than earlier generations did. That in turn could be curbing their community spirit. A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that married individuals volunteer at a higher rate than single people—29.9 percent compared to 19.9 percent. That report also found that volunteerism typically tends to peak in middle age—between 35 and 54.
Grimm is also interested in how trends like the rise of the gig economy and the decline of organized religion may be reflected in volunteerism and charitable giving stats. A survey earlier this year found that 23.1 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation, surpassing Catholics and evangelical Christians for the first time, according to CNN. “Religious nones,” as researchers call them, have grown 266 percent since 1991.
What Grimm is certain of is that declining volunteer rates mean communities are losing out. “There’s a phrase that goes, ‘Volunteering is the glue that keeps community working,” says Grimm. “When fewer people engage with each other, that’s where you’re going to have greater level of social isolation and lower levels of trust in each other.” Past research has also shown that there are mental and physical health benefits to volunteering.
The positive spin to the volunteerism slump is that those who do give are giving more: The nation collectively donated record amounts of hours and money in recent years, with total volunteer hours peaking at 8.7 billion in 2014, and charitable dollars at over $410 billion in 2017. That figure might not be surprising, given the economic boom that has made a small number of Americans enormously wealthy since the end of the Great Recession. But Grimm wonders how sustainable it is. “How long can this decline continue and not have a significant negative effect on the overall giving of dollars and time in the U.S.?” he says.
Alice Fothergill, on the other hand, is more optimistic about the state of America’s spirit of generosity: She doesn’t think philanthropic dollars or hours alone capture what’s going on—especially following major tragedies. A sociologist at the University of Vermont, Fothergill has studied “spontaneous” volunteer behavior in the aftermath of man-made disasters and natural disasters like hurricanes and floods. In 2009, she and her colleague Seana Steffen surveyed a handful of 9/11 volunteers about the long-term effects of their involvement.
“There is strong evidence that being involved in spontaneous volunteer activity after disaster does stay with them for a long time, and it has a huge impact on the community,” Fothergill says.
One nurse told the researchers that instead of working at a general hospital, she decided to work at a clinic for underserved communities after her 9/11 experience. Another participant, a massage therapist, opted to do therapy specifically for children near Ground Zero.
Sometimes, Fothergill says, people who do work that helps their neighbors and fellow citizens don’t count what they’re doing as volunteer work. That may not get counted in quantitive surveys.
“We found a broader shift [that] wouldn’t necessarily show up in volunteer numbers,” she says. “But it still might have a big impact on the community.”