Declining Volunteering and the Pressing Need to Ask Others to Help


Jaclyn Piatak, University of North Carolina and NVSQ author

Unemployed volunteers devote more time but are less likely to receive an invitation to volunteer. America’s democracy heavily relies on a strong voluntary sector, where all citizens should be represented, or at least have the option, with everyone having an equal likelihood of being asked. Yet dedicated individuals may not volunteer simply because no one asks them.

Much research has examined who volunteers. Several social and demographic characteristics are associated with volunteering; from being white, female, and married to having a job and higher levels of education. Researchers often refer to this as dominant status model, where factors associated with prestige and respect in America increase a person’s likelihood of being asked to volunteer.

Volunteering has numerous benefits and people may volunteer for a variety of reasons. People may volunteer for a personal benefit, such as to obtain job skills, to network or make friends, or to feel better about themselves. People may also volunteer for larger societal values, such as to help those in need or to make a difference in society. Regardless of one’s motivation, volunteering has many benefits for the organization, those being served, and the volunteer.

Volunteering and Employment

During the time of declining volunteerism, the United States faced the Great Recession with soaring unemployment rates and many recent graduates facing increased difficulty finding employment. Media outlets reported a flood or surge of jobless volunteers looking for meaningful ways to fill their time.

This leads one to wonder: are the unemployed the answer (or at least part of it) to declining voluntarism? Are unemployed individuals more likely to volunteer with their newfound time or to obtain some benefit? Or are they less likely to engage due to their loss of social ties or feelings of insecurity?

To address these questions in a recent NVSQ article, I used pooled U.S. data from 2003 to 2013. Looking simply at volunteer rates in Figure 1 below, part-time employees tend to volunteer the most, followed by full-time employees with retired and unemployed individuals lagging behind. This trend continues today with 31% of part-time employees volunteering compared to 23% of unemployed individuals. Unfortunately, this fails to paint a complete picture of the complex relationship between time, employment and volunteering.

JPiatak Fig
Figure 1: Volunteer Rates by Employment Status

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey

My research shows that length of unemployment influences whether unemployed individuals volunteer. The probability of volunteering steadily declines over time. Those recently unemployed are more likely to volunteer, which may be to avoid gaps in their work history, obtain or use job skills, or network. However, the longer people are unemployed the less likely they are to engage in volunteering, where they may feel detached and lose social connections.

However, the unemployed are worth engaging in volunteering. People who lose their jobs have the most to gain. Volunteering can be a pathway to employment and a way for individuals to prevent resume gaps or learn new skills. Perhaps more importantly, volunteering is a way to prevent the loss of social capital that losing a job brings by no longer seeing co-workers and disrupting one’s daily routine. Volunteering is a means to engage unemployed individuals in society.

Once engaged, volunteers devote a tremendous amount of time to volunteering. Unemployed volunteers devoted more time to volunteering than their full-time employee counterparts. Yet unemployed volunteers are more likely to become engaged because they took the initiative to approach the organization themselves, rather than receive invitations to volunteer.

Tip for Volunteer Recruitment: Just Ask!

Since being asked is the most popular means to become engaged in volunteering, organizations need to reach out to groups often excluded from invitations to volunteer. Everyone should be encouraged to participate in our civil society—to give back, to make a difference, to have a voice—regardless of background or employment status.

Besides the inequity of some people being more likely to engage from invitations to volunteer, those less likely may become the more dedicated volunteers. For example, some find while less likely to volunteer, African Americans, retirees and the unemployed devote more time to volunteering. Nonprofit organizations and public agencies should reach out to these potentially untapped resources who may become the most dedicated volunteers. Organizations can even test out jobless volunteers as potential employees.

Whether or not you decide to volunteer your time, you can do your part by sharing volunteer opportunities with others and just asking someone to help out. Reversing the decline may come down to the importance of simply being asked. As Senator Kennedy once stated, “we do not have to compel citizens to serve their country. All we have to do is ask – and provide the opportunity.”

Featured article: Piatak, J.S. (2016). Time is on My Side: A Framework to Examine when Unemployed Individuals Volunteer. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45, 6, 1169-1190.

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