There was some understandable hand-wringing when the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the volunteer rate in America decreased by one percentage point – to 25.4 percent of Americans – from 2012 to 2013. For the thousands of community organizations that rely on volunteers to fulfill their missions, any dip in the volunteer rate is cause for concern.
But the BLS report, at its core, may not mean that Americans’ commitment to volunteering is waning. Instead the data may suggest an evolution in how Americans volunteer.
When Winter Storm Leon barreled through Atlanta a few months ago, an army of concerned citizens sprang to life. They grabbed shovels to rescue motorists stranded on gridlocked, icy roads. They grabbed chainsaws to free people trapped in their homes by falling tree limbs.
But Michelle Sollicito did something different. She grabbed a laptop and helped hundreds of people get home safely right from her kitchen table.
When Sollicito’s Facebook group SnowedOutAtlanta amassed 50,000 members overnight and helped orchestrate hundreds of rescues, she was called a visionary and even a hero. But you couldn’t call her a volunteer – at least not by the traditional definition. And that points to a powerful need for change.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics relies on a traditional definition of volunteering – unpaid work performed for third-party organizations – which may not take into account several booming trends:
The explosion of pro bono and skills-based volunteer service. More and more companies and individuals are finding ways to volunteer their skills and talents. Just last year, more than 500 companies pledged $2 billion worth of skills-based and pro bono volunteer service that could go uncounted under a traditional definition of volunteering.
The rise in online service. Volunteering used to be exclusively about lending your hands and feet – but increasingly it’s about lending your tweets. Today’s younger volunteers in particular perform acts of service every day, whether they use their social networks to rack up millions of views for civic-minded videos or drive fundraising for people in need through online platforms like GoFundMe and HopeMob.
Traditionalists have labeled online volunteering and engagement as “slacktivism” because you can complete your service from your couch, in your pajamas. But as the service movement evolves, we should acknowledge that, in many cases, the greatest asset a volunteer can offer is his or her ability to quickly mobilize thousands of Facebook friends or Twitter followers to raise awareness or dollars and to inspire action.
The increase in youth and young adult volunteering. While the BLS data indicates that 16-34 year olds are the least likely to volunteer in traditional way, we know from other research that this demographic is highly engaged and civic-oriented. The 25-34 demographic creates more online petitions than any other age group on Change.org, a popular online activism platform. Further, by all accounts, the 18-34 demographic has driven the success of Indiegogo, a popular crowdfunding site, where young adults regularly help spread the word about social causes.
And we see an increase in volunteering by those too young to be measured by the BLS statistics. In just a few weeks last December, tens of thousands of young people acted to help another so Hasbro would donate $1 million worth of toys and games to Toys for Tots.
The number of people using their purchasing power to support causes. Many retailers are sending some or all of their profits to nonprofits, including Toms Shoes, FEED Projects, Newman’s Own, and Alex and Ani. Research shows that more than half — 54 percent — of consumers bought a product with a social or environmental benefit in the past year.
Michelle Sollicito found a way to deliver impact without ever leaving her home. At a time when we were witnessing the worst of Mother Nature, she mobilized thousands of Atlantans to show us the best of human nature and the new ways volunteers are creating impact. In the process, she reminded us that solving the critical needs of our communities requires us to recognize, embrace and leverage the many ways people can bring all their assets to bear to help others.
By any definition, the impact today’s volunteers are having is surely at an all-time high.