Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report, Where Are America's Volunteers? (22 pages, PDF), found that despite record-high total volunteer hours and charitable contributions, fewer people are behaving charitably. The study examined civic engagement among adults in all fifty states and the District of Columbia as well as two hundred and fifteen metropolitan areas and found that, between 2002 and 2015, nonprofits saw record highs in volunteer hours served, peaking at 8.7 billion in 2014, while total charitable giving, according to research by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, peaked at $410 billion in 2017. The national volunteer rate — which peaked at 28.8 percent for three straight years between 2003 and 2005 — fell to a fifteen-year low of 24.9 percent in 2015, while the percentage of Americans giving to nonprofits annually fell from 66.8 percent in 2000 to 55.5 percent in 2014.
According to the report, thirty-one states saw significant declines in the volunteer rate between 2004 and 2015 — a trend more prevalent in states historically rich in social capital, meaning those where residents typically have been highly engaged in social and civic affairs — while none saw a significant increase. The data also suggest that rural and suburban areas — which historically have higher levels of social capital than urban areas — saw the largest declines in volunteer rates, down more than 5 percentage points in rural areas and nearly 5 percentage points in suburban areas, between 2004 and 2015. Moreover, of the two hundred and fifteen metro areas analyzed, only eleven saw a significant increase in volunteering, while fifty-seven experienced significant declines. Many of the declines occurred in cities with higher levels of socioeconomic distress; with a smaller number of nonprofits per capita, and therefore fewer places to volunteer; and/or where people may be less likely to know their neighbors.
"As a nation, we must commit resources and time to the challenging work of putting more Americans back to work improving and engaging with their communities," said Do Good Institute director Robert Grimm, who co-wrote the report with Nathan Dietz, associate research scholar at the institute. "Continued declines in community participation will produce detrimental effects for everyone, including greater social isolation, less trust in each other, and poor physical and mental health."