1 of 4
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, hands his son Isaac a couple jars of Peanut Butter as he and his wife Julie bring their family Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 to the Utah Food Bank for a day of service.
It's a cultural thing. (Utahns) feel a need to help out their friends and neighbors, and businesses here really do feel a need to help out the community. —Heather MacDonald, United Way of Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — Volunteers may work for free, but they've never earned more for their organizations than they do now, according to a study released this month. And no where are their more volunteer hours given than in Utah, where both young and old lead the nation in volunteering.

An hour of work by the average American volunteer was worth $22.14 in 2012, according to a report by Independent Sector, a lobbying coalition made up of hundreds of nonprofit groups around the country.

The value, which is calculated using nonprofit earnings figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is up 35 cents from 2011 and is the highest reported number since the organization began collecting the data in 1980.

Independent Sector reports that volunteers donated about $172 billion in estimated labor costs in 2010, the most recent reporting year for total financial impact.

In Utah, where nearly two-thirds of all volunteering is religiously oriented, a volunteer's hour of work is worth $18.39, ranking the state 36th in the nation.

The formula for determining the worth of the average volunteer hour takes into account "skilled labor" volunteering, such as a doctor treating needy children pro bono or a lawyer giving free legal counsel to victims of domestic abuse. Utah's lower compensation rates for professional careers is factored into the figure.

But the money saved and number of local volunteers is just part of the story. Those who  volunteer in Utah provide an average time commitment unseen elsewhere in the United States.

Utah volunteers give about 70 hours of service per year, almost 12 hours more than second-highest Idaho and roughly 25 hours more than third-highest Alaska, according to LaDawn Stoddard, executive director of the Utah Commission on Volunteers.  Utah also ranks first in the number of parents who volunteer, which Stoddard says is intimately related to the hours disparity.

“There are more people who are parents in our state in the first place, and they tend to be very involved in their childrens’ schools, which tends to be consistent and time consuming,” Stoddard said.  

Looking at different sectors, Utah ranks first in young adults and college students who volunteer, at 48.6 percent.  And that doesn't include the years of voluntary missionary service that many LDS youth give in their young adult years.

Who volunteers?

Megan Gessel is a University of Utah student and the co-chair of the Project Youth initiative hosted by the volunteer Bennion Center there. This spring she juggled wedding preparations with 15 credits and her time coordinating volunteer events.

“Right now has been one of the craziest (times) of my life,” Gessel said.

“But I think it’s really worth my time. It makes me feel more grateful for my college experience and makes me feel a better part of the world, which sounds so cliche, but it’s true.”

Lacey Holmes, a spokesman for the Bennion Center, said the hundreds of students who come in each semester are looking for a therapeutic change of pace.   

“So much of what you do in college is all about you. It’s a nice break,” Holmes said. “It gives you something productive to do … that isn’t so stressful.

Independent Sector CEO Diana Aviv said most Americans — including volunteers themselves — don't recognize volunteerism's large economic impact in the United States.

"Those who volunteer are, by definition, not in it for the money, (but) attaching a monetary worth to the effort helps us put in perspective the immense value of the contributions people make every day," Aviv said. "Aggregate those hours and you find that volunteering contributes 5 percent to our (gross domestic product) each year."

In theory, a high average hourly rate implies that volunteers' invested time is having a greater impact,  Kristina Campbell, Independent Sector spokeswoman, said.

"It goes to show that it's not just menial work that they're doing," Campbell said. "(But) that's not to say that cleaning parks or picking up trash isn't valuable, because it is. Volunteers also bring a lot of intangibles to the table that can't be easily quantified."

Stoddard, predicts the increase in volunteer work's value is largely due to a wave of baby boomer retirees who are interested in using experience from their profession to give back to the community.

"You see a lot of adults who are retiring who want to give of their time in something they're skilled in," Stoddard said. "They're not just stuffing envelopes. For the volunteers, that's a little more meaningful."

Baby boomers

Baby boomers in Utah, like their young adult counterparts, also are number one in the nation for volunteer hours, according to the Corporation for National Community Service, a federal agency that monitors volunteering and community life.

Between 2009 and 2011, the average national volunteer rate was 29.2 percent per year. During the same timeframe, average baby boomer volunteer rates for states ranged from 22.3 percent in Arkansas to the high of 47.6 percent in Utah. The rankings are based on a three-year moving average.

Utah overall ranks first in the proportion of its population who are volunteers — currently 40.9 percent — and has held that distinction since 2006.

Utah volunteers average about 70 hours of community service per year.

"It's a cultural thing," said Heather MacDonald, volunteer engagement director for United Way of Salt Lake City. "(Utahns) feel a need to help out their friends and neighbors, and businesses here really do feel a need to help out the community."

E-mail: blockhart@deseretnews.com, Twitter: benlockhart89