New Works in the Field

Has Volunteering Changed in the United States? Trends, Styles, and Motivations in Historical Perspective

Editors’ Note: Susan M. Chambré introduces her article, published in Social Service Review this June 2020, “Has Volunteering Changed in the United States? Trends, Styles, and Motivations in Historical Perspective.” Pushing back against leading scholarship on volunteering in the U.S. noting the advent of a “new volunteer workforce that is supposedly devoting smaller blocks of time and particularly motivated by personal benefits,” Chambré underscores that the “features attributed to the new volunteer workforce — substantial turnover, time-limited and episodic volunteering — were common during earlier periods of U.S. history.” If anything, Chambré explains that “there are two important changes in recent years: a sharp decrease in working class volunteering and an increase in the desire to ‘give back’ to causes and organizations that benefit themselves, friends, and family.”

The idea that modernization is accompanied by a declining sense of community and a fraying of the social fabric has been a central theme in the field of Sociology. This idea gained a renewed interest with the publication of Robert Putnam’s research documenting that social capital has declined in the United States, an idea captured in the metaphor that more Americans are bowling but fewer are involved in bowling leagues. His work inspired a lively debate at the turn of the 21st century among sociologists, political scientists, and philanthropy scholars. In contrast to the fact that “every year over the last decade or two, millions more have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities,” Putnam found that volunteer rates were not declining. At the same time, a number of influential scholars, such as Lesley Hustinx and the staff at the U.S. federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), have described a change in the quality of volunteering, the development of a “new volunteer workforce” comprised of individuals who donate their time without being paid. This has involved the replacement of highly committed traditional volunteers with by modern or ‘reflexive’ volunteers who devote smaller blocks of time and are motivated by personal benefits.

This article considers whether there has been a transition from traditional volunteerism to a new volunteer workforce. It focuses on several questions: How have volunteer rates in the United States varied over time? What factors influence volunteer rates?  Is there evidence of a transition from traditional volunteerism to a new volunteer workforce?  In contrast to most research on volunteering, which dates back to the 1970s, I collected historical, ethnographic, and survey data from the early 19th century to the present in the United States. Survey data on volunteer rates in the U.S. are relatively recent. They document volunteer rates ranging from 20.4% in 1989 to one quarter of Americans during World War II and 27% in the 2002-2003 period after 9/11. The most recent rate, for 2018, was even higher, at 30.3%, a level that may have been an artifact of the high nonresponse rate to the question. While the actual rate might be slightly lower, other evidence on civic engagement, especially participation in political demonstrations, confirms that volunteering is at a high level at the present time.

Research on various economic, political and historical influences indicates that volunteer rates have not declined over time. Instead, they rise and fall within a 10% range that is related to political, social and, ecological events.  Participation increases during wartime, epidemics, disasters, and times of social and political change. The range is also determined by the ability of organizations to ‘employ’ volunteers, what has been described as ‘civic capacity.’ The demand for volunteers is finite because organizations need to balance the cost-benefit ratio of hiring volunteers, along with the reputational benefits of employing them. Substantial numbers of people might volunteer but do not know how to become involved or were turned away by organizations.

In contrast to the Tocquevillian image of the United States as a society where people of various ages, social classes, and racial and ethnic groups are actively involved in public life, historical studies dating back to earlier periods in our history indicate that there have always been significant disparities in rates of volunteering. For most of U.S. history, volunteering has been stratified by gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and social class. Men and women volunteered separately. African Americans, white Protestants, Jews, and Catholics rarely participated in the same ventures. Historical and survey data suggest a cyclical process in which volunteering was mainly the province of the middle and upper classes and became more democratized for much of the twentieth century. Class differences have increased since the 1970s. Volunteer rates among those who had not completed high school fell from 15 percent in 1974 to 10 percent in 2002. There was also a significant decline from 25 percent in 1974 to 16 percent in 2015 for those who completed high school but did not attend college. This trend has serious implications for American political and social life. While civil society remains generally vibrant, many lower- and working-class people have become, in the words of Arlie Hochschild “strangers in their own land.”

Some disparities, such as age and racial differences, have narrowed. There has been a sharp increase in volunteering by the young and the old. Changing gender roles, especially an increase in labor force participation by married women has also altered volunteering. Women volunteer more often than men, and the 6% differential has been constant. Jobs and family obligations limit discretionary time but they also draw people into volunteering. Volunteer rates are higher for women who are not in the labor force, and these women also donate more time and occupy leadership positions more than women who work.  Full-time employment has not led women to abandon volunteering: much of their involvement is connected to their jobs or is an extension of their maternal role supporting activities involving their school-age children. In a comparison between members of the silent and baby boom generations, Thomas Rotolo and John Wilson concluded in 2004 that in midlife, members of these two generations had fairly equal levels of volunteering despite the fact that more of the boomers were working.

The features attributed to the new volunteer workforce — substantial turnover, time-limited and episodic volunteering — were common during earlier periods of U.S. history. In the March of Dimes of the 1950s, a time generally viewed as the pinnacle of committed volunteering, there was considerable turnover and a large number of people who volunteered for short bursts of time. In fact, what has been long apparent is the existence of a small civic core who dominate organizations and have high levels of involvement in a number of groups.

Historical, ethnographic, and survey data do not provide evidence of a shift from altruistic traditional volunteers to a dominant pattern of self-interest in the U.S. Both in the past and the present, volunteers in this country are influenced by a set of mixed motives combining altruism, a commitment to public issues and self-directed motives including a desire to enhance one’s status and engage in self-help. Tocqueville’s observation that Americans are motivated by ‘self interest rightly understood’ has continued. Several studies reveal that rather than leading to self interest or a parochial outlook, individualism promotes a sense of tolerance and universalism. There has been one important change in motivations: volunteering has become more reciprocal since a larger share of Americans volunteer in order to ‘give back’ or to give forward for issues and to organizations that affect themselves, their friends and their families.

My extensive review of historical, ethnographic, and survey data did not provide support for the idea of a new volunteer workforce in the United States that is supposedly devoting smaller blocks of time and particularly motivated by personal benefits. Rather, volunteering long has been influenced by historical forces and exhibits socio-economic, gender, and age differences. There is considerable evidence that the volunteer labor force has included a committed civic core of active volunteers and a changing population whose attachment is weaker and more episodic. And throughout our history, volunteers have been motivated by a combination of altruism and a desire to be good citizens. All that said, there are two important changes in recent years: a sharp decrease in working class volunteering and an increase in the desire to ‘give back’ to causes and organizations that benefit themselves, friends, and family.

-Susan M. Chambré

Susan M. Chambré, a Professor Emerita of Sociology at Baruch College of the City University of New York, is the author of Good Deeds in Old Age and Fighting for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Community and the Politics of Disease. Her current book project is tentatively titled, Disease Crusades: Culture, Politics and Patient Empowerment, a study of tuberculosis, polio, and AIDS.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s