Decade Long Downward Spiral of Volunteerism

11 min readJul 24, 2020


How a Social Media Disconnect Between Nonprofits and Volunteers has lead to a sustained decline in volunteering


Volunteerism is deeply embedded in the American culture. We have a rich tradition of volunteering based on the fundamental principle that in order to improve people’s lives in our community, we must be willing to give our time, resources and sometimes even our lives. The spirit of volunteerism goes all the way back to the early 18th century. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer­based firehouse. A few decades later, during the Revolutionary War, an army of mostly volunteer soldiers gave their lives fighting for our country’s independence. This trend of American volunteer activity continued post Civil War and through the 20th century. During the Great Depression, when millions of people were unemployed and homeless, American Volunteers stepped up and created many soup kitchens and food pantries for people in need. The tradition of volunteerism continued throughout the 20th century where Americans started to break out of their national borders and started to make an impact on impoverished nations worldwide. Given our history of volunteerism over the last 300 years, it seems fair to say that volunteerism has become a core American value. Starting in 2002, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started to keep track of volunteer rate in America in order to assist the Nonprofit organizations recruit volunteers effectively. Unfortunately, over the last decade, there has been a disturbing trend regarding volunteer rates, putting this core American value at risk. Figure 1 shows volunteer data published by the BLS broken out by age group and education level, from 2005 through 2014 (the most recent data published at the time of writing). There is a decline in every single age & education group (Figure 2), with the most severe decline observed among the people who have a graduate degree and above (Figure 3). On average, a decline of 3.4% was observed across all the age groups. The graduates saw a decline of 6.4%. It is important to note that even though the decline in percentage is in single digits, it still represents a loss of millions of volunteers.

Figure 1 ­ Volunteer Data Published By BLS (2005­-2014)
Figure 2 ­ % decline in volunteerism (2005­2014)
Figure 3 ­ Volunteerism decline among college graduates and trendline

Misconceptions Regarding The Decline In Volunteerism

There have been many theories and misconceptions that have tried to explain the decline in volunteerism over the past decade. Some of these are

A. Correlation of the unemployment rate to the rate of volunteerism

B. There are less Nonprofits organizations now, therefore, there are less volunteer opportunities

C. Colleges and employers are placing less importance on voluntary community service as part of admissions/recruitments

Lets break down point by point why all three of these arguments are flawed and do not explain the downward trend in volunteering

A. Correlation of unemployment rate to the rate of volunteerism

Many theories have tried to correlate unemployment rates with rate of volunteerism. There are conflicting opinions regarding volunteer rates tracking the unemployment rate. Some suggest that volunteer rate follows unemployment rate ­ “The volunteering rate tends to track the unemployment rate,” (Nathan Dietz) while others have observed that lower unemployment has led to a higher rate of volunteerism ­ “The volunteer rate hit its peak in the early 2000s, when the jobless rate was lower than it is now” (Danielle Kurtzleben). Table 1 shows unemployment rate from 2005 to 2015 based on the data provided by BLS. Table 2 shows volunteer rate for college graduates from 2005­2014 based on the data provided by BLS.

Table 1 ­ Unemployment data published by BLS (2005­-2015)
Table 2 ­ Volunteer rates data published by BLS (2005­-2014)
Figure 4­ Unemployment data published by BLS (2005­-2015)
Figure 5 ­ Volunteer rates data published by BLS (2005-­2014)

According to BLS, during 2005 when the unemployment rate (Figure 4) was at 5.1%, there were 45.8% (Figure 5) volunteers. In 2014 the unemployment rate was at 6.2% and the rate of volunteerism was at its all time low at 39.4%. Looking at the data for the past decade, while the unemployment rate has fluctuated significantly during some years and stayed relatively flat over some years, the rate of volunteerism has declined. Based on the graphs in Figure 4 and Figure 5, from 2005 to 2014, there is no clear direct or inverse relationship between the unemployment rate and the volunteer rate.

B. There are less Nonprofits organizations now, therefore, there are less volunteer opportunities ­

The decline in volunteers is also not a result of scarcity of volunteers jobs. While the rate of volunteers is declining, the number of Nonprofits have actually gone up significantly in the past decade. Figure 4 shows that there are almost 400,000 more Nonprofits in 2015 than in 2005. This data includes the decrease of more than 275,000 Nonprofits in 2011 that lost their tax­exempt status with the Internal Revenue Services. This denotes an increase of approximately 25.5% of Nonprofits in just 10 years. Since, Nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers, significantly large number of Nonprofits being formed should result in more volunteer opportunities in the United States, not less.

Figure 4 ­ Growth of tax exempt entities (Nonprofits)

The juxtaposition of the increased number of Nonprofits and the decline of volunteers paints an even more stark picture. Figure 5 shows the number of volunteers from 2005 through 2015. In 2005 there was approximately 46 volunteers for every Nonprofit. In 2014, that number declined to approximately 35 volunteers per Nonprofit. This means that there was about 23.5% decrease in the number of volunteers per Nonprofit.

Figure 5 ­ Number of volunteers per Nonprofit (2005-­2014)

C. Colleges and employers are placing less importance on voluntary community service as part of admissions/recruitments

­ Among the various skills that colleges and employers are looking for, many people believe that volunteerism is no longer high on the priority list of admission officers/employers. This actually could not be further from the truth. According to Miriam Salpeter, who wrote an article in the USNews, “Admissions officers are increasingly placing a larger emphasis on community service work when evaluating college applicants”(Miriam Salpeter). In a survey conducted by in 2011, the results were that “admission officers place a high value on a student’s long­term commitment to a cause or organization”. One can also see a similar trend among the employers. Employers are putting greater emphasis on candidates with strong community service as part of the skill sets they are looking for in a potential employee. On LinkedIn, volunteerism “was the most requested field,”(Krista Canfield) said Krista Canfield, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn. “People realize that one way to nudge ahead of the competition is through volunteer work”(Krista Canfield)

Social Media Growth as Primary Source of Information & Job Search

Our society and community at large has gone through major transformations in terms of how we access information. In the last decade, there has been an explosive growth of social media and mobile internet consumption as seen in Figure 6. Social media has become a primary source of information across all age groups. According to Vicki Coleman “Social media expands our reach more quickly, much further, and at a grander scale through words, pictures, and videos. Social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram empower individuals to share their voice in a media­centric model ”

Figure 6 ­ Social media use by age group (Pew Research Center)

Social media is used in a significant way that has allowed individuals to connect to each other socially and professionally. Organizations are also using social media to create brand awareness as well as to disseminate information to their customers and potential employees. Social media has also matured into a major platform for job seekers. More than 83 percent of job seekers use Facebook to search for jobs, and 76 percent of social job seekers found their current job through social media, according to Jobvite. Given that social media has reached such a large audience in general and specifically job seekers, one can draw an inference that people who are looking to volunteer would also use social media as a primary source for finding volunteer opportunities at the Nonprofit organizations. Typically, the Nonprofits are slow to adopt new technologies and trends, primarily due to cost constraints and lack of resources. Since most social media is free and quite easy to setup and maintain, Nonprofits have been quick to adopt social media. In fact, a study conducted by Steven Shattuck shows that more than 98% of the Nonprofits use social media as seen in Figure 7 Nonprofits have been primarily tailoring their social media use towards getting brand recognition, sharing news about their organization and cause, as well as for fundraising.

Figure 7 ­ social media adoption by Nonprofits (Steven Shattuck)

Nonprofits and Social Media Recruitment of Volunteers

Even though social media remains a fertile ground for finding employment by the job seekers, based on a study conducted by AARP, only 19% of the people signed up for volunteer opportunity on social media sites. In a separate study conducted by Steven Shattuck, who surveyed more than 9000 Nonprofits for his study, volunteer recruitment did not even make it to the top three goals for Nonprofits. People are using social media as a primary tool to find opportunities, but Nonprofits have not made volunteer recruitment a priority on social media. This disconnect between the volunteers and the Nonprofits has caused volunteerism to decline. To prove this hypothesis, an analysis was done on the Nonprofit efforts into hiring volunteers.


  1. Based on the information available from the Internal Revenue Services(IRS), a database was created of all registered Nonprofits in the United States. In this database, there are more than 1.5 million Nonprofits with attributes stored such as name, Employer Identification Number (EIN), address, state, income level, etc.
  2. The database also contains an attribute named NTEE_CD. NTEE_CD (National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities Code) is a category assignment that designates the type of Nonprofit. For example, code A07 stands for Museum, D03 is designated for animal protection.
  3. The data was then segmented by NTEE Code for analysis. Since there are more than 1.5 million Nonprofits in the database, all the NTEE codes with less than 1,000 Nonprofits in the category were not considered to keep the sample size manageable. With this elimination, there were 144 NTEE codes left, with each NTEE category containing at least 1,000 Nonprofits.
  4. All the Nonprofits with an annual income of less than $0 were excluded from the analysis
  5. From this database, 2 lists were created, a. List A (Figure 9) was created based on the median income of Nonprofits within each NTEE Code b. List B (Figure 10) was created based on the median income of Nonprofits within each STATE
  6. For each Nonprofit identified in both the lists, an attempt was made to identify the Facebook page using the following criteria:

a. A Google search was done based on the Nonprofit name, city and state to identify the Facebook book for the Nonprofit

b. If Facebook page was not found in the above step, an attempt was made to identify the website address for the Nonprofit to help locate the Facebook information from the website

c. If no Facebook page was found in the above steps, it was assumed that the Nonprofit did not have a Facebook page.

7. If a Facebook page was identified for the Nonprofit, a search was performed on all public posts to identify posts deemed relevant to volunteer recruitment.

a. The phrases/keywords used for searches:

i. “Volunteer” ii. “Seeking help” iii. “Recruitment” iv. “Need help”

b. Some phrases/keywords were excluded from the search because these phrases did not directly relate to volunteer recruitment:

i. “Thanks to our volunteers” ii. “We are a volunteer run organization” iii. “Volunteer appreciation”

8. For each Nonprofit with a Facebook page, year of the oldest and the most recent post was recorded to compute average frequency of volunteer recruitment related posts over a period of time.

9. Only Facebook was used to test the premise primarily because it is the most popular social network among the general population (i.e. volunteers) as well as Nonprofits.

Figure 8 is a screenshot of the database query that sorts the Nonprofits by NTEE code.

Figure 8 ­ snapshot of database containing 1.5 million Nonprofits
Figure 9 ­ Nonprofits with NTEE Code A20-­B99
Figure 9 ­ Nonprofits with NTEE Code B99Z-­M24
Figure 10 ­ Nonprofits with State PA­WY

Results & Conclusions

Based on the data collected in Figure 9 and Figure 10, following are the key findings of the data analyzed:

Table 3 ­ Nonprofit volunteer job postings on Facebook by NTEE code
Table 4 ­Nonprofit volunteer job postings on Facebook by STATE

The data seems to suggest that an overwhelming number of Nonprofits aren’t using social media as an effective tool for volunteer recruitment. The data from the two different lists of Nonprofits have nearly identical volunteer recruitment rates. Nonprofits grouped by NTEE Code had an average of 1.7 volunteer recruitment posts over a period of 4.09 years. This means that on average there were 0.43 posts per year for the Nonprofit volunteer recruitment requests. Similarly, for the Nonprofits grouped by State, there were about 1.68 posts attempting to recruit volunteers over a course of 4.14 years. On average, each Nonprofit in this group had 0.40 posts per year trying to recruit volunteers. In both sets of data, it is apparent that Nonprofits have not prioritized volunteer recruitment in their social media strategy. Less than 1 post per year related to recruiting volunteers is not benefitting the Nonprofits. More than 90 percent of Nonprofits are already on social media and more than 80 percent of job seekers and potential volunteers are looking for opportunities on Facebook. This research highlights how inadequate the Nonprofits’ efforts have been in using social media to recruit volunteers. It is apparent that there is a disconnect between potential volunteers and Nonprofits seeking them. For volunteerism to thrive again, this disconnect needs to be addressed by all Nonprofits. Nonprofits need to embrace social media for volunteer recruitment also and not just use social media as a platform for brand awareness and fundraising

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