“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” I found this Kurt Vonnegut quote while doing some research the other day. Intrigued, I copied it down for future reference.
We met with our hospital Volunteers’ officers recently. Similar to other non-profit organizations our volunteers perform essential work and help round out our organizational personality. Their impression is people simply don’t volunteer like they used to. I’ve heard similar laments in other places and with other efforts too.
Could it really be true? I searched for data.
In November 2018, the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute reported fewer people volunteer. They also reported those same volunteers worked record-high hours, about 8.7 billion in 2014 to be precise. CEO Robert Grimm stated, “Continued declines in community participation will produce detrimental effects for everyone, including greater social isolation, less trust in each other, and poor physical and mental health.”
The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University similarly reported that the national volunteer rate peaked at 28.8 percent from 2003-2005 then fell to 24.9 percent in 2015. Even worse, rural and suburban areas with previous “high engagement in social and civic affairs” suffered the largest declines of about 5% from 2004-2015.
On a brighter side, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) used updated 2016 data to report in November 2018 that “more Americans than ever are volunteering.” They said 30.3 percent of adults volunteered 6.9 billion hours valued at $167 billion in 2016. They also described informal volunteering where people support friends and family and do favors for their neighbors. Their CEO stated, “The fabric of our nation is strengthened by the service of its volunteers. They understand the power service has to change communities and lives for the better.”
Who volunteers? Among the states, Utah reports the highest volunteerism rate in the US at 43%. Kansas came in at seventh place with 33% of adults reporting they volunteer. According to CNCS, the typical volunteer is married, white and female, has higher education levels, and children under age 18.
In defense of our Millennials and Gen Xers the largest age cohort was 35-44 followed by age 45-54. Dr. Mark Snyder of the University of Minnesota contrasts the motivational differences among age groups. Snyder states “young persons volunteer to advance their careers while persons approaching retirement age volunteer as an act of citizenship and leaving a legacy.”
Finally the CNCS reported why people volunteer. It’s “the satisfaction of doing good for other people along with gaining something for themselves. . . a win-win situation.”
In his book Democracy in America (1835) Alexis de Tocqueville observed volunteerism played a foundational role in our new country. He noted American culture “sends missionaries, distributes books, raises churches, and creates hospitals, prisons, schools. If it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, Americans associate.”
I cannot help but refer to reputable research linking volunteerism with improved health and less loneliness. In her book Raising Happiness, Christine Carter compellingly stated, “People over age 55 who volunteer at two or more organizations have a 44% reduced chance of dying early and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, smoking, marital status and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church.”
In answer to Vonnegut’s earlier quote, it stands to reason that volunteering, probably at any age, serves as an effective antidote to social isolation just for starters. Volunteers stabilize our community, gain valuable knowledge and insights, improve others’ situations, and actually improve their own health too! Accept Vonnegut’s challenge. Resolve to volunteer in 2020.
Carter, Christine. “Raising Happiness: In Pursuit of Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” 2010. Ballantine Books.