More Americans — 64.3 million — volunteered in 2011 than in the past five years, an increase of 1.5 million more volunteers than 2010, according to a new report released by the Corporation for National & Community Service.
A third, 34.4 percent, of these volunteered through religious organizations last year, the highest percentage in any sector, according to the report.
According to Wendy Spencer, CEO of CNCS, religious organizations often provide the best structure for organized volunteering and the best insight into on-the-ground-needs.
High levels of volunteerism and civic engagement can lead to lower unemployment rates and stronger economic communities, she added.
Value of time
Altogether, Americans volunteered approximately 7.9 billion hours with formal organizations in 2011, with a value of $171 billion, according to the report.
"Volunteerism is part of supporting the economy in America by providing these services and time," Spencer said. "It's part of our citizenship."
The economic opportunity that comes with volunteering cannot be overlooked, she said. It addition to strengthening the economy of a community or state, volunteering can reap economic benefits for an individual. College graduates, young adults and those in a "transition" stage between high school and college have perhaps the most to gain.
"Volunteer by day. Prepare your resume at night," she said. "If you are volunteering with an organization during the day you are building up your skills, networking and meeting new people. I really believe that volunteering can lead to economic opportunity."
Desire to help
Some increase in the number of volunteers can be attributed to nonprofits and service organizations better articulating on-the-ground needs to potential volunteers, Spencer said.
"Sometimes when times are really tough, organizations do a very good job of promoting the need. People do not like to hear that others may be homeless or going hungry."
Technology has also allowed people to help in ways like never before, said Sandy Scott, senior adviser for the CPCS. He noted the advent of volunteer search engines where people can search for opportunities by location that match their skills and interest.
"Technology has helped people get involved in a lot of new ways, whether it is across town or across the world," he said. "Social media is a way that people are learning about opportunities to serve and hearing about the impact they make."
Disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, also present an opportunity for volunteering and service, Spencer said.
"Responding to disasters often brings out the best in Americans. We have a strong desire to help our neighbors in need."
The overall volunteering picture in America is "encouraging," Spencer said, citing an increase in parent volunteerism as a positive trend. Parents' volunteer rate is 33.7 percent, and the national average is 26.8, according to the report.
"If parents of school-age children can volunteer, certainly the rest of us can give a little more of our time. This a good thing that parents are getting more engaged in their communities."
Spencer is also encouraged by the increasing number of applications for AmeriCorps, which is a national nonprofit partnership through which thousands of people volunteer every year. The number of applications last year for AmeriCorps was 582,000, she said.
"We are at our highest level of applications in history. So that says there is a great need and there is interest."
The interest and desire to help others can be traced back in our nation's history, Scott said.
"In many ways the story of America is the story of volunteers," he said. "It's part of who we are as Americans."
Faith and volunteering
Spencer recalled a bishop from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who came to Florida in 2004 and showed her firsthand the powerful combination of faith and volunteering. After Florida's fourth Hurricane in 44 days, she was asked by the Mormon bishop how he could help relief efforts.
"I told him we really need some more nonperishable items and food," Spencer said. "Overnight several tractor trailers filled with nonperishable canned food items arrived in our state. I'll never forget that."
Volunteering through religious organizations happens everywhere across the country. The No. 1 volunteer activity this last year was raising funds for charities of faith-based organizations, Spencer said.
"Faith-based organizations provide a very well-organized vehicle for people to help through," she said. "Americans want to help others, but they need to be connected to both a need and an organized mechanism. They can't just show up."
Often times, faith-based organizations provide the most well-oiled mechanism. They are adept at finding specific needs in the community and working to address those needs, Spencer said.
"Faith-based organizations are on the ground identifying needs. They are working and serving in communities and neighborhoods and they hear from the public about the needs … Other families who have means can help those families in need," she said.
"Faith-based is the No. 1 way to do this."
Volunteers can gain invaluable skills that will help them find employment, Scott said. Volunteers in AmeriCorps can receive money to help pay for education as well as skills to kick-start their careers, Scott said.
"Volunteers can gain new skills and meet new contacts as well as experiencing the profound joy and satisfaction that comes from serving a larger cause," he said. "We have 18-year-olds leading crews in Hurricane response."
Volunteering can also provide a somewhat intangible benefit to people: hope.
"The physical work is important, but so is the emotional lift that comes from the kindness of strangers," Scott said.
The civic health of communities is linked with unemployment rates, Spencer said. Volunteering, public meetings, voting, helping neighbors and a high density of nonprofits all contribute to communities with lower unemployment. This is something for public officials, such as mayors, to recognize, she said.
The importance of simply asking for volunteers is critical to continue the increase in volunteering, Scott said. Elected leaders, such as President Obama, also need to stress the importance of service, he said.
"The No. 1 reason people volunteer is because they are asked," Scott said. "We need to make sure that the call is made and that they are quality opportunities for when people answer the call."
With nonprofits facing an increasing demand for their services, volunteers can step in and provide help that will benefit themselves and their community, Scott said.Comment on this story
"There are many needs out there, and volunteers can help in significant ways," Scott said. "Find something what works for you. Your service can make a difference."
Among other highlights from the report:
65.1 percent of citizens served their communities in 2011 by doing favors for and helping out their neighbors
44.1 percent of Americans actively participated in civic, religious and school groups
The top five states for volunteering are Utah, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota
Utah had the highest volunteer rate at 40.9 percent