M. T. Harmon, Corporation for National and Community Service
More Americans — 64.3 million — volunteered in 2011 than in the past the 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.
Also, 34.4 percent of people volunteered through religious organizations last year, the highest percentage in any sector, according to the report. Religious organizations often provide the best structure for organized volunteering and the best insight into on-the-ground-needs, said Wendy Spencer, CEO of CNCS.
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, and she cited 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 to our nation's history, Scott said.
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