NEW YORK – Daniela Fernandez has no trouble attracting volunteers to her group Sustainable Ocean Alliance. Last month, she presided over the Our Ocean Youth Leadership Summit in Panama, where 77 participants from 45 countries volunteered their time to develop solutions to protect the oceans.
The summit focused on participants between 18 and 35, the age group many in the philanthropic sector worry are not volunteering enough. It had to turn away more than 900 applicants.
“Young people crave having sustained impact and seeing how their time, their energy and their passion is actually moving the needle,” Fernandez said. “The problem is, a lot of organizations don’t have the process or the tools or the projects that will deliver on that need — that urgency that young people have.”
For decades, volunteerism in America has been declining. But according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps survey, it dropped another 7 percentage points between 2019 and 2021. The survey found about 23% of Americans volunteered with a formal nonprofit – including churches, schools, and food banks – at least once in the previous year.
There is a disconnect between organizations and their volunteer pools. And it's not only getting in the way. It's becoming systemic.
A LONG TRADITION
Since Benjamin Franklin organized the emerging nation's first unpaid fire company in Philadelphia in 1736, volunteering has been as definitively American as Girl Scout cookies, blood donation and school bake sales.
But Americans’ fraying connection to organized volunteering is a long way from the days when French aristocrat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how many “Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare” in his 1840 book “Democracy in America.”
“They hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to each other,” he wrote in his renowned 1840 book “Democracy in America.” “Men attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice.”
That spirit has certainly continued, boosted occasionally by calls to action like President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech urging, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Though American volunteerism has generally declined since the 1950s, there have been bursts of growth to cope with the AIDS crisis and in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As recently as 2018, the United Nations Volunteers Program found that Americans donated more of their time than any other nation in the world, even more than in far larger countries like China and India. When measured on a per capita basis, though, residents of Luxembourg and Canada were volunteering more than Americans.
Moira Weir, CEO of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, says her organization continues to support the American ideals that Tocqueville praised. It recently marked 35 years since it became one of the founding United Way members of the Tocqueville Society, which provides her group more than $13 million in funding annually.
Weir feels lucky to currently have “an abundance” of volunteers at a time when demands for her group's services is increasing. She believes volunteerism runs deep in the community because its importance was passed down from generation to generation the way her parents instilled it in her.
“We didn’t have much, but we were still going to give whatever we had to food pantries, and we were volunteering,” she said. “My mom always said, ‘It’s more important to give back than to take.’”
FINDING NEW PATHS
The notion that citizens were responsible for maintaining the social safety net rather than the government became an ideal that Americans exported — often in tandem with democracy — in the late 19th century. It was done through outfits like the United Way, as well as Americanized versions of charities whose histories trace back to the United Kingdom, like the Salvation Army and the YMCA.
Service organizations, including Rotary International, followed in the early 20th century. Now, though, Rotary is seeing its strongest volunteer growth not in the United States but in Asia, Africa and parts of Eastern Europe, said Rotary International CEO John Hewko.
“There’s a decline in volunteerism, but at least what we’re seeing is certainly stable,” he said. What's more, Rotary increased its membership slightly coming out of the pandemic, which Hewko says was good news: "We were obviously concerned.”
Americans are on the move more than ever before, and that ripples out into volunteering as well. If people don’t live in one place for very long, they tend not to volunteer as much — especially if they are surrounded by other newcomers, says Mark Snyder, director of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota.
“The residential stability of your ZIP Code is a really good predictor of how much volunteering goes on in your neighborhood,” Snyder says. “Generations find their voices in different ways. So the kinds of volunteer engagement that worked for an older, more suburban generation may not work as well now.”
Like many organizations, Rotary is working to develop new initiatives that can attract younger American volunteers, including the Rotaract clubs that cater to the group’s members under 30.
“It’s just different than it used to be,” Hewko said. “Our traditional model of going to weekly club meetings and the various rituals around those meetings – that’s changing certainly among the younger demographic.”
Snyder says his research indicates that volunteering fulfills a wide range of motivations that many organizations do not address — and, at the same time, that the changing demographics of the United States are reconfiguring the volunteer landscape.
“Maybe some groups are seeing a decline because their membership has been dominated by white people and the country is not all white people," Snyder says. "Maybe membership in those organizations is declining because the kind of people attracted to them represent smaller proportions of the population.”
VOLUNTEERING FOR TOMORROW
This much seems clear: When it comes to volunteering, organizations simply can't ignore the generational shifts taking place in a 21st-century world where many institutions have been upended.
Top-down management strategies, for example. Those aren't received well by younger volunteers, according to Sustainable Ocean Alliance, which employs a different philiosophy.
“We have youth volunteers in 165 countries because we’re asking them, ‘What projects are you seeing in your neighborhood that will have the most impact? How can we help you solve your own problems? How can we help amplify your ideas?’," says Fernandez, its leader. "Our approach is bottom-up. We’re providing them with funding, with agency, with resources, with mentorship, to make their own ideas come to life.”
Those ideas increasingly cross generations and geographic boundaries, says Fernandez, who is unsurprised that volunteerism growth is happening around the world.
“We are definitely moving from a U.S.-centered approach,” she says. “We are starting to shift the narrative that we have to wait for politicians to make the right decision. Young people are going to demand that these changes are made because they are aware that if they don’t, there’s going to be consequences in their lifetimes.”
American nonprofits will face big consequences if they don't take immediate steps to attract younger volunteers, says Carl Nassib, an NFL linebacker and volunteerism advocate. “This decline is horrible,” says Nassib, who last year launched Rayze, an app to connect volunteers with more nonprofits.
After receiving funding and incubation support in November, Rayze has partnered with platforms to allow users to donate to more nonprofits and find more volunteering opportunities. It has also started holding events to attract young people to volunteering by making it more social and entertaining.
“It should be fun,” he says. “You should be able to do it with your friends. It should be easy. Then, that’s where you’re gonna get recurring volunteers. And that’s how we’re going to reverse that trend — when there’s reasons to come out other than just giving back.”
Nassib recognizes that nonprofits face issues beyond their control that impede volunteering. But, he says, "I do feel that some of the most well-known nonprofits in the country have kind of been asleep in the wheel,” he says. “They have very little brand recognition among younger generations. They have never really met them where they are.”
“They’re still doing mail-outs,” added Nassib, laughing. “They’re still sending hard mail to millennials and Gen Z.”
Nassib is optimistic, though. He believes the disconnect can be fixed — and that American volunteerism can echo through the rising generation and find new ways of expression. “I’ve been a delusional optimist my entire life," he says. "If you ever ask me if anything was possible, I’m always gonna say, ‘Yeah.’” _____
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