The Social Capital Project has documented various forms of social capital decline and recently noted that certain types of social capital may continue to decline as a result of the pandemic. However, volunteering is one aspect of America’s social capital that has taken a different path. The volunteer rate has not declined, and may have even increased over time: Americans are just as likely or more likely to volunteer today as they were 40 years ago and volunteer efforts are continuing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Figure 1. Volunteer Rates, 1974-2015
Source: Volunteering in America
Different data sources suggest different stories about volunteering trends in the United States. Some data indicate that the share of Americans volunteering has remained steady although somewhat low, while other sources show that volunteering has increased over time so that now the majority of adults in the United States volunteer.
The difference between these findings may have to do with how the questions are asked. For example, CPS surveys ask about volunteering for an organization, while more recent Gallup surveys ask participants about volunteering for any “charitable cause.”
Although volunteering remains strong in aggregate, it is still more common in some states than in others. According to 2015 data, Utah has the highest share of volunteers, with 38 percent of the state’s population involved in volunteering. Mississippi had the lowest rate of volunteers, at 16 percent. Overall, volunteering is more common in the northern half of the United States, particularly in the Midwest, and states with higher rates of volunteering also typically have higher levels of other types of social capital.
Higher volunteer rates are especially valuable during a crisis, and the Social Capital Project has highlighted several examples of volunteer efforts taking place across the nation in response to the current pandemic. These include:
- Seamstresses across the country volunteering their time and resources to sew face masks, along with churches and other private organizations coordinating similar efforts.
- Numerous volunteer grocery shopping and delivery groups that have sprung up to help the elderly and other vulnerable groups get the food and supplies they need without having to leave their homes.
- Financial institutions donating money to local restaurants to help them stay afloat.
- Non-profit organizations donating electronic devices to the elderly so they can stay connected to family members via technology.
- Individuals organizing social media donation campaigns to help people pay their bills.
- Groups providing gardening supplies and plants so community members can grow fresh food.
- Restaurants donating free meals to those in need.
Policymakers can support volunteer efforts by reducing regulations that stand in the way of people helping their neighbors, including reforming regulations that limit community efforts to provide food to the needy and relaxing registration renewal, inspection, and other permitting requirements for already stressed non-profit organizations. Policymakers should also see that government programs do not crowd out the efforts of communities’ volunteer efforts.
Volunteering continues to be a part of American culture and the efforts of individuals and mutual aid groups are playing an important role in the current pandemic. In coming months, it’s imperative that volunteer efforts continue to constitute one part of rebuilding and aid efforts.