Snapshot of American Volunteering

Perhaps the somewhat dim picture of American generosity is brightened when we account for Americans’ giving of time instead of money. To examine this we divide the analysis into volunteering time to charitable causes and taking political action on behalf of causes.

When we examine rates of giving time or services to charitable causes,10 we find an even more dismal snapshot for volunteering than for financial giving: 75 percent of Americans reported no volunteering in the past month (Figure 1.5).11 About 10 percent volunteered one to 10 hours in the past month. To put this into perspective, the typical American with eight hours of sleep per night is awake 480 hours in a month; therefore 10 hours a month of volunteering constitutes less than 2 percent of waking hours. Only about 5 percent of Americans generously volunteered 10 percent or more of their waking hours to charitable causes (greater than 40 hours in

Volunteering in past month, combined

figure 1.5 Volunteering in past month, combined.

a month). The vast majority of Americans do not volunteer, and only a few volunteer a great deal of their time.

What explains the overall low rates of volunteering? Does income influence ability to volunteer? The answer is yes, but volunteering and resources do not correlate linearly. The lowest income earners (those earning less than $5,000 per year) do have the lowest volunteering participation rate, with about 10 percent of people giving any of their time. Figure 1.6 shows household income level relative to the amount of hours volunteered in the past month. However, nearly 25 percent of people who earn just $10,000 to $13,000 per year still manage to volunteer. And yes, there is a general upward trend, with people at higher income levels volunteering more, but the highest earners are not those who give the greatest amount of time. Those who give the greatest time are the upper-middle-class households, with incomes of $100,000 to $150,000. Nearly 50 percent of these Americans regularly volunteer, and many volunteer a substantial number of hours. Thus while in general those with more resources volunteer larger amounts of time per month to charitable causes, there is a good deal of variation in the upper echelon of income earners.

Volunteering in past month by household income

figure 1.6 Volunteering in past month by household income.

Perhaps volunteering is related to availability of time. Yet the data also resist supporting this common sense notion. A lack of free time does not appear to explain lower levels of volunteering (see Figure 1.7). While time availability appears to play a role, it is not the case that busy Americans gave no time. Hours spent volunteering are quite evenly distributed among the groups; most volunteer a few hours a month. In fact about 25 percent of full-time workers or full-time students and 33 percent of part-time workers or students spent time volunteering in the past month. Moreover 20 percent of nonelderly, retired Americans donated time, only slightly more than do disabled or elderly Americans. Although we may think of these two groups as having a similar number of available hours, we would presume that the disabled and elderly status would make them less available to volunteer than the more able-bodied retirees. Stay-at-home parents are the most active volunteers, with nearly half volunteering regularly. Stay-at- home parents and part-time workers and students are exceptions, with most offering more time per month than others and stay-at-home parents being the most active (nearly half volunteer).

Volunteering in past month by availability status

figure 1.7 Volunteering in past month by availability status.

An interesting caveat is that when we interview Americans who do not currently volunteer, they often say that they intend to do so when they have more time later in their life (i.e., after they retire). However, if the current generation of retirees is representative of future generations, we would expect only 5 percent of today’s nonvolunteering, full-time workers to begin volunteering when they retire. That leaves the bulk of volunteering to the busiest Americans, namely workers, students, and parents.

Perhaps Americans are busy with other responsibilities besides their jobs that limit their amount of spare time.12 To investigate the notion of available time in another way, we compare discretionary time to volunteering time. Our measure of discretionary time sums the hours that our respondents reported watching TV, surfing the Internet (not for work- related tasks), and shopping for nonessential goods (goods besides, say, groceries).13 We refer to the total of time spent on these three activities as “leisuring” hours and compare these to the hours respondents spent volunteering per month. When we look at the patterns between leisuring and volunteering, we find nearly an inverse relationship, with more volunteering time related to less leisuring time.

Figure 1.8 compares the percentage of estimated waking, nonworking hours spent volunteering in the past month (left) to the percentage of

Volunteering in past month (left) and time spent on “leisuring" as a percentage of estimated nonworking hours (right)

figure 1.8 Volunteering in past month (left) and time spent on “leisuring" as a percentage of estimated nonworking hours (right).

estimated waking, nonworking hours spent on leisure in the past month (right).14 Here we also can observe a related pattern, namely that Americans contribute significantly greater proportions of their discretionary time to leisuring than they do to volunteering for charitable causes. Specifically 75 percent of Americans spent zero hours in the past month volunteering, while fewer than 1 percent spent zero hours on leisure. Conversely 6 percent of Americans spent 10 percent or more of their discretionary hours volunteering, while 89 percent spent 10 percent or more of their discretionary hours on leisuring.

In summary, we see little evidence that Americans compensate for their low level of financial donation by giving time to charitable causes. Quite the opposite appears to be the case. Americans spend far more hours on personal leisure activities than on volunteering. Those with the greatest financial resources and those who theoretically have the most free time to give do not volunteer the most.

 
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