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Is Volunteerism in America on the Decline? Or Is It Just Largely Under-Reported?

Every year for the past several years it’s reported that volunteerism as an activity is declining in America. However, anybody who’s anybody in the volunteer engagement field knows that tracking volunteer engagement can be incredibly

elusive. Whether through surveying, a self-reporting mechanism or a hands-on management style, volunteers don’t always self-report their activity. And if we’re being honest some organizations don’t care or have the capacity to capture it. According to a 2004 study, only 45% of organizations largely adopt the best practice of regular collection of information on volunteer number and hours, with only 32% of the remaining organizations adopting that practice to "some” degree. That leaves roughly 23% that don’t collect numbers and hours at all. Perhaps those same organizations are only reinforcing the lack of self-reporting by inadvertently communicating to volunteers that it's not important enough to collect.

Even in the corporate realm, many companies with employee volunteer programs are wildly focused on outputs (number of volunteers engaged and hours served). But companies with self-reporting mechanisms often acknowledge difficulty capturing hours because self-reporting is hard to enforce. As a result, some volunteering goes unnoticed. So, is it possible that volunteer activity isn’t declining? Is it possible that it’s being reported less year after year, especially with increasing forms of non-traditional volunteering like virtual volunteerism?

Unreported volunteer hours.

Some year’s back I had a conversation with a volunteer I knew donated their time for several events. But it wasn’t until I had a conversation with this individual that I learned they were volunteering three to four times the amount we initially had on record. When I informed this volunteer we had fewer hours on record in our database they just shrugged it off. I asked this person, why if they knew we hadn’t captured all the hours, why not just tell us so we can update our records? The response I received was something to the effect of “well I don’t volunteer for the recognition.” It was at that point a light-bulb went off. It became clear to me this volunteer wasn’t aware of all the reasons we track volunteer hours beyond the recognition piece. This volunteer didn’t realize we track hours to benchmark internal performance, understand industry trends, report externally to donors and the public, internally to executives and the board of directors and to analyze our current population of volunteers to improve our engagement practices.

I get that most people don’t brag about their community service. But what if (and this might be a big if) the nature of our volunteers in America is such that they’re not apt to self-report, and when asked to do so they’re conservative in their answer out of fear of looking braggadocios about their charitable contributions as a volunteer? I’ve thought about this long and hard and have had many debates with others who work in corporate social responsibility and equally in the non-profit sector. Some folks point to the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting as the end all. I don’t think this is the end or a final answer though. I believe it’s just the beginning.

Self-reporting through the Current Population Survey.

Reporting by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) in recent years concludes that volunteer engagement in the United States is on a steady decline. The volunteerism data that feeds this report is collected through a supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) that’s sponsored by CNCS and carefully analyzed. The CPS is a monthly survey of about 60,000 households conducted by the United States Census Bureau. Sample households are selected by a multistage stratified statistical sampling scheme. Those chosen through this process are interviewed for four successive months, then not interviewed for eight months, then finally returned to the sample for another four months after that. I should also state that BLS analyses are reported to be generally conducted at the 90 percent level of confidence. But here’s where things get weird.

Through this process there’s a supplement, questions specific to volunteer activities that are asked of these same households. Generally, one member of the household answers all the questions in the CPS on behalf of the entire household. This means in theory, if you have a large family that includes two adults and five children, one person could answer for all seven members of that household. According to the technical notes on BLS they state the following:

“self-response was considered important for the volunteer supplement because research indicated that self-respondents could easily answer questions on the characteristics of the volunteer activity.”

I happen to agree that each person involved in volunteer activity will have better knowledge of their own activity. Now, whether they self-report (or self-report inaccurately) is something completely different. This is the crux of the matter.

Possibility or impossibility, let me know.

What if these same individuals just simply don’t report their engagement? What if when asked, they’re just being modest in their answer and report a lower number? What if they’re asked about someone else’s volunteer engagement (a member of their family) and they are unaware of the level of the collective family engagement because it’s not shared amongst each other? Or, maybe these same people are getting involved in less formalized types of volunteerism like activism and virtual opportunities. Perhaps the result of that engagement means that it isn’t considered to be reportable based on the BLS definition? Is that a far-fetched thought, or is it in the realm of possibility?

So, do you think volunteerism is on the decline in America? Or is there a possibility that it’s just under-reported? To be clear, this isn’t an inquisition of the BLS or their methodology, I imagine their survey has a good amount of accuracy. This isn't even a post questioning the legitimacy of any institution, these entities are as legitimate as it gets. However, I think it’s safe to say it’s not 100 percent without flaw. Because of that, does it open the possibility that volunteerism isn’t declining, but simply not reported? I’d like to explore people’s general thoughts about the mainstream idea that volunteerism is in fact declining without question. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer here, but regardless I’d like to know what you think, I’d love to hear from folks who have any thoughts on it.

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