Released in July 2007, a study conducted by the U.S. government concludes that Midwesterners in large cities are more likely to donate their time than individuals who make their home in metropolitan areas on either coast. The report, titled Volunteering in America:  2007 City Trends and Rankings, is based on data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics for the years 2004 – 2006 and focuses on the country’s fifty largest metro areas.

Minneapolis twin cities led the country in volunteers per capita, where more than 40 percent of residents in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area reported volunteering at least once a year within the study’s parameters. Other heartland cities ranking in the top ten include:

  • Austin, TX
  • Omaha, NE
  • Kansas City, MO
  • Milwaukee, WI
  • Tulsa, OK

Among coastal cities ranking in the top ten are Seattle and Portland in the West and Charlotte, NC in the East. A surprising outlier is second-ranked Salt Lake City.

At the opposite end of the scale, Las Vegas weighs in at only a little over 14 percent of its citizens giving their time to a charitable cause, followed closely by Miami, New York, Virginia Beach, and Riverside, CA.

Trends in Urban Volunteerism

Researchers findings of general trends are not altogether surprising. The authors suggest that various socioeconomic factors influence volunteer rates in urban areas across the country. For instance:

Commute time – Individuals with shorter commutes have more time to devote to volunteer efforts.

Home ownership – The higher the proportion of ownership to rentals, the higher the volunteer rate. Individuals who own their homes seem to have a greater sense of connection to the community than those who rent.

Poverty rates – An inverse relationship exists between poverty rates and volunteerism.

Education level – The higher the average level of education, the higher the level of involvement in the community.

Nonprofit concentration – A higher concentration of nonprofits leads to more volunteer opportunities.

Butterfly Effects

More interesting are some of the butterfly effects projected from small changes within urban demographics. These projections implicate a raising of the bar for high-impact individuals within a community, such as city planners and educators. For example, researchers calculate that if the national average commute time were cut by only three minutes, the related boost to volunteerism would be 2.3 percent. In addition, raising the average national graduation rate by just four points over the current 83 percent would realize an additional 4.1 percent increase in volunteerism across the country.

Decline in Volunteerism?

However, perhaps the study’s most startling finding is the decline in the overall number of volunteers across the country. Even though volunteerism is recording some of its all-time highs, numbers have recently slouched among adult volunteers. In fact, analysis of the data found that over 30 percent of individuals signing up for volunteer work in 2005 did not return the next year.

David Eisner, Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service, states, “Our failure to retain more volunteers from one year to the next is cause for concern and should serve as a wake-up call to all those individuals, groups, and organizations that care deeply about addressing the nations most pressing needs through volunteering. Just a slight increase in volunteer retention could have a significant impact. Researchers estimate that if nonprofits could raise the current overall volunteer retention rate of 67 percent to 71 percent, they would reap the benefit of an additional 3.2 percent in volunteer growth.”

How can organizations keep volunteers coming back? Authors of the Volunteering in America study offer some suggestions. First, keep volunteers engaged in volunteer organizations, they write. Volunteers actually thrive on being asked to do more for an organization they care about. Second, reach out to volunteers who are already involved with another organization. It appears that committed volunteers work with multiple organizations. Third, research shows that different volunteers have preferences for different volunteer activities. We need to see volunteers as important community and organizational assets and try to make the best use of their time and commitment by trying to ensure the best fit between the volunteer and the volunteer organization and volunteer activity.

Helping Others

Back in top-rated Minneapolis, Les Kuivanen is volunteering at an elementary school, along with other retirees of Honeywell International. The former Honeywell engineer comments that he gets more satisfaction out of his volunteer experience because coordinators matched his skills with his volunteer activities. He and his cohorts teach students about electricity and magnetism, citing the importance of learning about science and technology and hoping that it might influence the career path of some of the children.

“I wanted to volunteer because I wanted give back,” comments the Minnesota native. “It’s fun to golf and fish and hunt, and I do all that. But I wanted to do something that I thought was needed, to help others.”

Around the country, there are people who would like to make a difference through their volunteer efforts. Urban areas rising to the challenge to reduce volunteerism barriers will reap those rewards.

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