Director's Column

Good News for Volunteerism

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Volunteers are the backbone of the Main Street movement. Creating a community-based revitalization program means engaging people through outreach and volunteer service. Unlike many nonprofit organizations, the volunteers who serve on Main Street boards and committees must take a hands-on role in running the program and implementing its activities.

Hammonton NJ Junior MainStreet volunteers
Junior MainStreet Hammonton volunteers install new trash receptacles in the New Jersey community's downtown.

Credit: John D. Woods

The good news is that, while the economy may be down, volunteerism is on the rise. The Corporation for National and Community Service – which hosts the most comprehensive collection of information on volunteering in the United States – announced in July that, despite the challenges of a tough economic situation, 2008 was apparently a banner year for volunteerism in the U.S. The volunteering rate actually held steady between 2007 and 2008, while the number of volunteers slightly increased nationally, by about one million. 

To be honest, that represents a pretty modest increase – from 26.2 percent to 26.4 percent – of all adults from previous years. Still, this figure stands in high contrast to the actual decline in charitable giving by corporations, foundations, and individuals in the same timeframe. In total, 62 million volunteers gave 8 billion hours of service. And, when you consider how much a volunteer is worth – about $20.25 per hour, according to this study – that translates into a powerful impact!

While this trend seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom – that volunteerism declines with the economy – it makes intuitive sense to many of us in Main Street. For example, according to the 2008 National Main Street Trends Survey, which we conducted in January 2009, more than 400 local Main Street organizations reported seeing a significant increase in the number of volunteer hours tracked by their programs.

Here's a few other really interesting facts from the Volunteering in America study that could work to your benefit:

•  The number of young adults who volunteered in 2008 increased by 441,000, representing an increase from about 7.8 million in 2007 to more than 8.2 million in 2008.

•  Neighborhood engagement levels have risen sharply since 2007, with a 31 percent increase in the number of people who worked with their neighbors to fix a community problem and a 17 percent increase in the number of people who attended community meetings.

•  As the economy slows and nonprofit organizations struggle to provide services on smaller budgets, volunteers become even more vital to the health of our nation's communities. Very few nonprofit organizations are showing a decrease in their use of volunteers.

•  Volunteers were much more likely than non-volunteers to donate to a charitable cause in 2008, with 78.2 percent contributing $25 or more, compared to 38.5 percent of non-volunteers.

Want to know exactly who is volunteering in your state?  Check out the Volunteering in America website (/www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/) for a comprehensive collection of information on volunteerism in the United States.

Once you know where to find volunteers, you need a plan to recruit and manage them. You can find detailed information on volunteer recruitment and management in our new publication, Revitalizing Main Street: A practitioner's guide to comprehensive commercial district revitalization. Also check out the following Main Street News articles: "Focus on Volunteers," January-February 2006; "Jump-Starting Your Volunteer Program Through Special Events," November-December 1996; and "Managing Volunteers for a Stronger Main Street Program," February 1996.