COVID-19 Pandemic

Charitable Action in Times of Crisis: What the state of Giving in the Aftermaths of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina Can Tell Us About the post-COVID era

Editors’ Note: Nathan Dietz summarizes the findings of a new research brief from the Do Good Institute, “Community in Crisis: A Look at How U.S. Charitable Actions and Civic Engagement Change in Times of Crises,” and reflects on what it might suggest about giving, volunteering, and civic engagement in the post-COVID era.

How has the charitable sector in the U.S. responded to the societal upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? Now that so much of daily life is conducted online from our homes, what does civic engagement and associational life look like? What lasting effects might the crisis have on philanthropy and civic engagement in the U.S.? It’s important to understand the capacity for people and organizations to help with the crisis and recovery in order to gain a better sense of what to expect in the days, months, and years to come.

At the moment, what is known about philanthropy’s response to the crisis comes largely from anecdotal news items about specific events. In early April, when New York’s governor issued a call for health care workers, more than 90,000 people responded, only to encounter a balky, frustrating placement process that several weeks later had deployed only 900 workers. More recent reports indicate that giving and volunteering have increased in the New York area, and that many donors have shifted their focus to local rather than national causes and organizations. On a larger scale,, which sponsors the annual Giving Tuesday event after Thanksgiving, held a special event in early May called GivingTuesdayNow that harnessed the generosity of people from 145 countries worldwide.

The nationwide response to the crisis is harder to describe because the problems are so pervasive: the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn have led to more joblessness and social dislocation since the Great Depression. Studies of previous economic downturns suggest that positive responses may be limited in scope and duration, even when the effects are felt nationally. One analysis, using data that covers a twenty-year time span, shows that, although political participation did tend to be higher in states with higher unemployment, national civic participation rates did not increase significantly during the recessionary periods of the mid-1970s and early 1980s.[i] Another study found that during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the overall positive response was limited in metropolitan areas with high foreclosure rates.[ii] In cities like Boston and Baltimore, residents organized community projects to help victims of foreclosure. Nationally, the volunteer rates were higher in metropolitan areas more affected by the foreclosure crisis, all else being equal – but only homeowners, not renters, volunteered at higher rates.

In general, most research on how the charitable sector responds to crises is limited to the hardest-hit geographical areas and focuses on the immediate response and short-term recovery efforts. For instance, in New York, the surge in interest in volunteer opportunities on the VolunteerMatch website following the September 11 attacks lasted for only three weeks; when President Bush issued his Call to Service early 2002, the needle barely moved.[iii] In New Orleans, the response to Hurricane Katrina included more than 166,000 long-distance volunteers from other states who traveled to Louisiana to volunteer in 2007. These long-distance volunteers appreciably increased the size of Louisiana’s volunteer workforce during the recovery: they comprised about 19 percent of the “total” number of volunteers in the state in 2007.

Charitable Action in Times of Crisis: New York, New Orleans and the USA

Previous studies suggest that a surge in civic activity usually follows a crisis – but how large is the surge, and how long does it last? The Do Good Institute’s recent research brief, “Community in Crisis: A Look at How U.S. Charitable Actions and Civic Engagement Change in Times of Crises,” uses recent historical trend data on volunteering and civic engagement to measure the size and duration of the surge in philanthropic activity following a crisis. The data source for the research brief is the Current Population Survey Supplement on Volunteering (CPS Volunteer Supplement), which was administered by the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics each September between 2002 and 2015. The CPS Volunteer Supplement contained consistently worded survey questions about volunteering through or for an organization that allow us to examine trends in volunteering. In 2006, questions about two informal civic activities (working with neighbors to fix or improve something in the community, and attending a public meeting where community issues were discussed) were added to the survey. In 2008, a question about giving to charity was added.

The CPS Volunteer Supplement data enable us to measure participation during the post-9/11 era, the period during and following Hurricane Katrina, and the period before, during and after the Great Recession. The data allow us to focus on two areas that were especially affected by these events: New York City, the site of the deadliest of the September 11 attacks, and New Orleans, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina. By comparing trends in volunteering and civic engagement in these areas with national trends, we can gain an understanding of how Americans have responded in the past to local and national crises.

During the 2000s and early 2010s, the national volunteer rate peaked at 28.8 percent from 2003 to 2005, declined significantly in 2006, and stayed between 26 and 27 percent every year between 2006 and 2012. However, despite the overall stability in volunteering, the participation rates for all four civic activities – volunteering, giving to charity, attending public meetings, and working with neighbors – did change significantly during this time period. All four rates increased significantly in either 2008 (attending public meetings and working with neighbors) or in 2009 (volunteering and giving), during the heart of the recession.

After the recession, each of the four participation rates declined significantly at least twice between 2010 and 2015. For three of the indicators – volunteering, attending public meetings, and working with neighbors – the national rate decreased by a statistically significant amount in 2013. The national volunteer rate continued to slide in 2014 and 2015, bottoming out at a fifteen-year low of 24.9 percent in 2015. The 2013 decline in the national giving rate was also statistically significant and was followed by a significant decline in 2015 that lowered the giving rate below 50 percent for the first time since 2009. These results, which are consistent with trends that have been noted by others, suggest that the United States had recently been experiencing all-time lows in volunteering and giving, before the arrival of COVID-19.

The metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) surrounding NYC and New Orleans experienced lasting increases in charitable activities following the September 11 and Hurricane Katrina crises, even though participation rates of all kinds tend to be lower in these areas than in most MSAs. The volunteer rate in metro NYC reached its highest point in 2002-2004, during the surge of post- September 11 civic activity, and rebounded following the recession (2010-2012), as did the percentage who worked with their neighbors to fix or improve something in their communities. Although the proportion of New Yorkers who gave to charity has always been lower than the national rate, the giving rate in metro NYC increased significantly in 2011-2013.

In metropolitan New Orleans, the pre- (2002-2004) and post-Katrina period (2007-2009) saw the volunteer rate moving in the opposite direction from the national rate and the rate in metropolitan New York City. The volunteer rate increased sharply after Katrina: it reached an all-time peak among area residents (not counting the out-of-state volunteers who came to help with the recovery), and this peak continued through 2010-2012. In addition, the percentage of residents who reported working with their neighbors was above the national rate in 2007-2009 and in 2010-2012. The attending-public-meetings rate also reached its peak in 2010-2012; however, both rates dropped sharply by the mid-2010s, as did the giving rate, and the declines in metro New Orleans were much larger than they were nationwide.

Lessons for today: What might be different now?

The story of the post-9/11 response in metro New York City and the post-Katrina response in metro New Orleans is that communities respond to crises – but that the surge eventually fizzles out. However, this pandemic has no real precedent in modern times: its impact is more widespread than any recent event since the Great Recession, and the recovery may be much more lengthy and painful. How might the response from philanthropy be different from earlier crises?

On one hand, the historical trends in volunteering suggest that many nonprofit organizations have tended to use the same strategies to attract and retain volunteers. For almost twenty years, volunteers have tended to follow the same pathways of introduction to the organizations where they volunteer. Results from the 2015 Current Population Survey are typical: about 42 percent of volunteers approached the organization themselves, about 41 percent were asked by someone to volunteer with the organization, and the remainder learned about the organization some other way. These percentages have been remarkably stable since the early 2000s; they suggest that social connections are still very important drivers of the decision to volunteer, even though the widespread use of the internet has made it much easier to learn about volunteer opportunities.

Still, now that so many Americans have been relying almost exclusively on the internet for contact with the outside world, the pressing questions include: How many nonprofits have pivoted to engage virtual volunteers? How many have used online platforms and events like GivingTuesdayNow to attract donors? What novel strategies have organizations used to keep themselves visible and available to potential donors and volunteers during the lockdown? Now that the economy is reopening throughout the country, many businesses are finding that customers are postponing their return until they are more comfortable with the risks of in-person interactions. The same goes for nonprofits: even after the shelter-in-place rules have been lifted, the organizations that have been most successful in creating innovative virtual volunteer opportunities will be in the best position to make a difference.

For individuals, the shelter-in-place regulations upended a gradual but long-lasting trend about how we socialize. Between the 1970s and 2010s, people have been entertaining in their homes less often, and visiting with friends outside the neighborhood more. They are not spending less time with friends overall; instead, groups of friends are congregating in other places. Over the same period (between 1974 and 2016), the percentage of adults who socialize with their neighbors frequently fell from 30 percent to 19 percent. However, now that many “third spaces” – gathering places that are neither work nor home – throughout the country have been closed for several months, many people have been finding ways to (re)-establish ties with their neighbors. From banging on pots and pans to thank front-line healthcare workers to forming mutual aid groups and eviction defense groups–activities that the Current Population Survey would not consider to be volunteering, because they are not done through, or for, an organization – perhaps Americans are finding new ways to help each other and give back to their communities. If so, perhaps the nonprofit sector can build on the growth and innovation found in the charitable sector to reinvigorate giving, volunteering, and civic engagement in the post-COVID era.

-Nathan Dietz


[i] Lim, Chaeyoon, and Thomas Sander. “Does misery love company? Civic engagement in economic hard times.” Social Science Research 42, no. 1 (2013): 14-30.

[ii] Rotolo, Thomas, John Wilson, and Nathan Dietz. “Volunteering in the United States in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 44, no. 5 (2015): 924-944.

[iii] Penner, Louis, Michael T. Brannick, Shannon Webb, and Patrick Connell. “Effects on Volunteering of the September 11, 2001, Attacks: An Archival Analysis.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 35, no. 7 (2005): 1333-1360.

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