When a study claimed volunteering was at an all-time low, it hinted at a generational divide in civic engagement, and highlighted a perceived shift in priorities amongst younger people within the culture.

But is civic engagement truly suffering, or is it time to redefine what volunteering encompasses, and how it is measured?    

Is civic engagement truly suffering, or is it time to redefine what volunteering encompasses, and how it is measured?

The 2018 study was conducted by the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, part of its School of Public Policy.  

Analyzing data gathered between 2002 and 2015 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), the report found that overall, there was a significant decline in the percentage of Americans who volunteered time and donated money annually to nonprofit organizations during that time frame.

Equally alarming was the fact that the percentage of high school-age volunteers declined between 2005 and 2015 — the first such decline in 30 years.

While the report mentions that total volunteer hours given to community organizations actually hit a peak in 2014, it quickly tempers that enthusiasm by pointing out those hours were contributed by a decreasing number of volunteers percentage-wise. The report credited older generations, including the Greatest Generation (born between 1905 and 1924) with having “extraordinarily high” participation rates that masked lower rates from other age groups.

Similarly, total charitable donations from all sources, which have increased in the past decade and hit an all-time high of $410 billion in 2017 (according to a report by Giving USA), were the result of fewer people giving more, according to the study.  

These declines were viewed by the Do Good Institute as troubling, and part of a larger concern for a deteriorating commitment to civic engagement among younger people.  The report described its findings as having “worrisome implications for American civil society.”

But some analysts feel these statistics are misleading, and the conclusions incorrect.

Mary Noel, Director at  DoSomething Strategic, a social-impact consultancy based in New York, spoke to Considerable at length about the survey and the perception that volunteering is fading among younger demographics.

Perhaps the standard for what is considered “volunteering” is outdated and unwieldy.

She believes the standard for what is considered “volunteering” is outdated and unwieldy, and notes that the survey used in the Do Good Initiative report only asks respondents to include work they’ve done through or for an organization.

Says Noel: “This artificial delimitation excludes most of the charitable work that young people currently do.”

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DoSomething Strategic’s own surveys from 2016 and 2018 used a less formal standard for volunteering, instructing respondents to consider volunteer activities they did “…for any group or organization, with friends, or by yourself … formally or informally.”

This casts a wider net and paints a more nuanced picture of civic involvement for young people (ages 13 to 25).

Noel describes what this next-generation volunteerism looks like: “Young people today are are picking up trash in their own neighborhoods, or starting a bathroom recycling campaign, or mowing their neighbors’ lawn out of good will.

“By acknowledging activities outside traditional organization-instructed opportunities, the reported rate of annual youth volunteerism more than doubled,” Noel said. The Do Good Institute study “undervalue[s] how the volunteer system is evolving, diversifying, and getting stronger, all thanks to this generation of young people.

Some examples include making birthday cards for children experiencing homelessness, and a recycling drive to collect empty beauty products (that resulted in over 20,000 items being collected).  

“Volunteers are more likely to stay stronger emotionally, mentally, and physically, especially as they age”
University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute

The Do Good Institute concurs that any time given to a worthwhile cause has benefits — whether or not it’s through a formal arrangement with an official organization.

“Volunteers are more likely to stay stronger emotionally, mentally, and physically, especially as they age,” its report notes. “Volunteering also encourages other types of civic participation, discourages antisocial behavior, and promotes socioeconomic achievement — yielding direct benefits for the volunteers and indirect benefits for their communities.”

The physical and emotional benefits of volunteering are becoming more widely known, and there is ample evidence that volunteering contributes to an increased overall sense of connection and happiness.  

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