Volunteering does more than help the less fortunate, connect communities, and pad college applications and resumes; it boosts the economy. The nearly 8 billion hours that Americans volunteered in 2011 were worth over $170 billion, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.
New data from the Labor Department show exactly who is volunteering and where. Nearly 27 percent of Americans volunteered last year, donating a median of 50 hours between September 2011 and September 2012.
The share of volunteers is down slightly from the year before but has held relatively steady since 2008. However, Labor Department data show that volunteering was more popular early in the last decade, with rates near 29 percent in the mid-2000s. While the decline in volunteering happened shortly before the economic crisis, it is possible that the slow recovery is contributing to lower levels of volunteering, as people use their spare hours to earn extra income. Still, other, cultural shifts could also be at work.
Here's a quick rundown of who's giving up their free time and why.
Women Volunteer More Than Men
Women continued a long-standing trend of volunteering more than men—from September 2011 to 2012, nearly 30 percent of women volunteered, while fewer than 1 in 4 men—23.2 percent—volunteered.
Is it because women are naturally more giving? It may actually due to the fact that women are more likely to either work part-time or not at all, meaning that they have more time available to them for volunteering, says Diana Aviv, president and CEO of Independent Sector, an organization that promotes charities and philanthropic organizations.
Childrearing also can make volunteering more likely.
"Almost always, the most compelling reason for people to continue to volunteer is that they're parents," says Aviv. Having children brings with it all sorts of volunteer opportunities, like helping with the Little League or clubs like scouts and 4-H.
As women often take more responsibility for childrearing and spend more time with children than men, that could also account for the gap.
More Education Means More Volunteering
The more educated the group, the more likely its members are to volunteer. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that knowledge leads to benevolence. Rather, Aviv speculates, it's because people with more education tend to have more income. People who have lower incomes may work more hours or multiple jobs to make ends meet, for example, and therefore have less time for volunteering.
...but More Education Means Less Religious Volunteering
Interestingly, while more educated Americans are giving more of their time, they are giving less of it to religious organizations. Nearly half of volunteers with less than a high school diploma did their volunteering with religious organizations. That share declines with each education level, up to people with bachelor's degrees or higher, fewer than one-third of whom did religious volunteering.
Still, religious organizations remain the most popular venue for volunteers, being the main organization for one-third of all volunteers.
Whites Volunteer More Than Other Groups
Whites volunteer at greater rates than other racial and ethnic groups. Exactly why that might be could be a mix of factors. For example, whites tend to be more highly educated on the whole than African Americans, and non-Hispanic whites likewise tend to be more educated than Hispanics. That means that the educational effects discussed above may come into play in racial and ethnic breakdowns.
Still, Aviv says that the figures might be misleading; some activities like caring for extended family members, which tend to vary by culture, often don't count as "volunteering" but still involve people giving of their time to others.
Youngsters Aren't Volunteering That Much
Depending on how you slice it, both middle-agers and the oldest adults are putting everyone else to shame. The 35- to 44-year-old set had the largest share of volunteers, with nearly 32 percent of that group giving their time last year. By hours, however, senior citizens are giving much more, with an median of 90 hours per year, compared to a national median of 50.
Younger adults were near the low end of the spectrum on both counts, with 25 to 34 year olds volunteering a median of 32 hours per week, and with fewer than 1 in 4 people 34 and under volunteering last year.