Number of volunteers has grown despite recession, study says

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; 4:44 PM

The number of volunteers increased last year despite the recession, the biggest one-year jump since 2003, according to a study released Tuesday.

The volunteer rate has been rising nationally for years, driven by factors including decades of presidential calls to action and greater emphasis on youth involvement through schools -- but the increase in the midst of a punishing recession surprised some experts. Charitable donations fell in 2009, as some people seemed to choose to give time rather than money, but a new study offered hope that gifts could be on the upswing this year, with a big jump in the first quarter of 2010 relative to the same time last year.

More than 63 million Americans volunteered last year, a bump of 1.6 million, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service, an independent federal agency that runs AmeriCorps and other programs. That's nearly 27 percent of all residents. Americans donated more than 8 billion hours of service in 2009, worth an estimated $169 billion to the economy.

The percentage of residents who volunteered in Maryland and Virginia from 2007 to 2009 is similar to the national average for 2009. Maryland ranked sixth nationally in number of hours donated per person, about 46, and the Washington metro region ranked ninth amongst large cities with about 43 hours given per person. The region also ranked ninth in the percentage of residents who volunteer -- just shy of one-third.

"Folks throughout the country are looking around their communities, seeing people in pain and turning toward the problems, not away from them," said Patrick Corvington, chief executive of CNCS. "It's an important shift: Folks want to get engaged, want to make a difference."

At the same time, charitable giving dropped nearly 4 percent last year, to about $304 billion, according to a study by Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which tracked donations by more than 75 million households and more than 1 million companies, as well as estates and foundations.

Many experts had predicted a greater drop because of the economy; during the recession in 1974, giving fell nearly 6 percent.

And there may be good news ahead: In the first quarter of 2010, a much smaller sampling of 1,400 organizations by Blackbaud, a firm that sells software and services to nonprofit groups, suggests that revenue increased more than 12 percent over the same period last year. Much of that jump was driven by an outpouring of support for victims of the earthquake in Haiti, said Chuck Longfield, chief scientist at Blackbaud; some relief organizations made their entire annual budget in one month.

Still, the results so far suggest that things have stabilized, and are on the upswing relative to the difficult times in the recession, he said.

Some small nonprofits had to rely on volunteers more than ever when the economy tanked and they could no longer afford as many paid staff members.

Corvington said the factors encouraging people to volunteer might include the president's and first lady's emphasis on service, the desire of unemployed people to gain experience, skills and contacts by volunteering while they look for work, a national database that tries to make it easier for would-be volunteers to find local opportunities, and improvements in the ways that nonprofits recruit, use and retain volunteers.

The CNCS study didn't include people who give informally, at their children's schools or with neighbors; the agency is trying to gauge the depth of that engagement this summer.

Catholic Charities USA had 25,000 more volunteers last year, according to spokesman Roger Conner, a 10 percent jump from the year before.

At Community of Hope, a District-based nonprofit that provides health care and housing to homeless people, they have more volunteers than staff members and ask for a long-term commitment when possible. They didn't have an increase last year, but they were already at the point where they had so many volunteers, they couldn't use them all even as they grew and expanded their services.

"We couldn't do what we do without them," said Kelly Sweeney McShane, the executive director. "We certainly hope they keep coming."

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