In Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam claimed that civic participation in the U.S. has been declining. One metric he offered in his book was the decline in the number of volunteers in civic organizations such as religious groups, labor unions, Parent-Teacher Associations, or fraternity organizations. Not everyone fully agrees with Putnam’s arguments: some suggested that perhaps civic participation now takes different forms—not through PTAs, but perhaps through the Little League or soccer clubs, animal rescue operations, or other forms of volunteerism that did not exist before.
The District, with its changing demographics, is an interesting place to see how volunteerism has changed. Do we see a decline in volunteerism as Putnam has suggested? Or do we see a shift in the volunteer population towards new or different types of organizations and activities? To answer these questions, we looked at data on volunteer activities for years of 2002 and 2013. Although this is not the period Putnam is discussing in his book, it is the period where demographic changes were happening very fast in the District. Here is what we find:
- More people volunteer in the District, but each do so for fewer hours. In 2013, an estimated 150,000 District residents (or about 31 percent of District’s adult population) reported volunteering for a cause. More people volunteered in 2013 compared to 2002 (up from 98,000), but each did so for fewer hours. District residents who volunteer have been spending on average 130 hours each year on these activities—equivalent of three and a quarter weeks of full time work–down from approximately 163 hours or four weeks of full time work averaged between 2002 and 2005. As a result, total volunteer hours increased by only 10 percent (from 18.8 million hours to 20.7 million hours) while the number of volunteers increased by 50 percent.
- Women’s contribution to volunteer activities is declining in the District. In 2002, women collectively contributed 13.3 million hours of volunteer work; in 2013, their total contribution had declined to 12.4 million hours. Women volunteer more frequently than men do, and generally put in more hours. In 2013, women provided approximately 60 percent of all volunteer hours in the District, providing, on average 21 hours more of volunteer hours compared to the District’s men who volunteer. In 2002, women provided 71 percent of all volunteer hours and provided, on average 88 hours more of service compared to the men. During the same period, the share of women’s contribution to total hours volunteered fluctuated between 56 percent and 58 percent across the entire nation.
- The growth in the number volunteers between 2002 and 2013 entirely came from the increasing white population, but the growth in the total number of volunteer hours came entirely from the African American community. African American residents of the District are less likely to volunteer; however, when they do, they volunteer twice the time at 226 hours per year (or over 5.5 full weeks of their time) compared to their white counterparts.
- District residents with higher levels of education are more likely to volunteer, but they do so for fewer hours. Half the residents with a professional and doctoral degree volunteer for some cause, compared to 10 percent of the population with a high school degree, but they only commit about 78 hours per year—this is one third of the hours committed by volunteering adults (the data track those 15 and older) who have a high school degree only.
- Types of organizations that attract volunteers changed significantly. Looking at the type of organizations people volunteer for (here we are tracking organizations people report as their top three volunteering outlets), we see some interesting stories. The table below tracks both how these organizations are growing (second column) and how the District’s volunteer population is shifting across them (third column). This last metric shows us what types of organizations are gaining relative ground, which ones are stable, and which ones are on the demise.
- Kids are the big winners. Between 2003 and 2013, volunteer organizations for kids’ sports and rec groups (the Little League, soccer groups, chess clubs etc.) have added 19,320 volunteers going up from 25,000 volunteers to 44,400 (or 77 percent growth over its base). This was already big in 2003, but became even bigger, with 20 percent of the volunteers engaged in these organizations in 2013 compared to 17 percent in 2003.
- Volunteer definitions are changing. In 2003, only 3,000 adults, or two percent of District’s volunteer population, reported volunteering for an organization that did not fit under any of the traditional types of organizations. This number grew by 14,000 and now stands at 8 percent. What types of organizations might these be? Perhaps they are technology focused organizations (Engineers Without Borders, Wikipedia, the Guttenberg Project, or open source foundations such as Yorba (though they have been denied nonprofit status by the IRS).
- Environmentalism is on the rise; immigrant and refugee assistance is up and coming. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of DC residents who identify environmental or animal care organizations as their volunteering outlet has increased by 5,800; or by 120 percent. They still constitute a small, but rapidly growing, share of volunteers. Volunteerism for immigrant and refugee assistance groups did not even exist in 2003 (a surprise, given the international nature of our city); now they attract 1,332 residents.
- Public safety is dead. Not a single resident reported volunteering for a public safety organization in 2013. Their numbers were already low in 2003, but now we see that volunteering for the fire department or neighborhood watches are things of the past. We have completely professionalized this area.
- Religious organizations and social and community service groups are still big and growing, but not as fast. Social and community service groups added nearly 9,900 volunteers, but their growth lagged, at 28 percent, behind the city average of 50 percent. These type of organizations now attract 20 percent of all volunteer adults, as opposed to 23 percent in 2003.
- Here is what the newcomers to the District (read, millennials) do not care for: Political parties and advocacy organizations, cultural and arts organizations, sports and hobby groups, labor unions, professional organizations and health research and education groups. These kinds of organizations either lost volunteers or barely added any new ones.
- Types of volunteer activities are changing too. The table below, which tracks people’s main volunteering activity, tells us the following:
- Counseling, music or artistic performances, and tutoring and teaching are on the demise. Counseling lost half of its volunteer base, music or artistic performances lost 40 percent. With counseling, it might be that people are reluctant to offer this service without proper credentials. Tutoring and teaching is still a large activity (28,500 residents report it as their main activity in 2013) but this base did not grow at all from 2005.
- Coaching sports increased its base by 50 percent, going from 5,100 adults reporting this as their main activity to 7,675. This is just another measure of the growing importance of kids.
- The real surprise here is usher and greet activities. This group added 7,753 new volunteers since 2013. Given these activities generally attract older people–the median age among these volunteers is around 50, compared to 38 for all those who volunteer–it is odd to see such growth in a city that is flooded by young people. However, as we have noted elsewhere, the senior population in the District has been growing, both in numbers and riches, perhaps increased volunteerism among this group should be expected.
What is the takeaway from all of these? First, volunteerism is still growing in the District, but our time commitment to volunteer activities is on the decline. Second we are more focused on our children, and to some extent, on our ideals. Work related volunteerism is on the demise; so is volunteerism in health and social services sectors, perhaps because of credentialing requirements. Finally, an increasing share of volunteers work for organizations that are not in the traditional definition of volunteering outlets. It would be interesting to find out what they do.