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Jul 15, 2010

Surprising Attributes of the American Volunteer

I just submitted my July column for Business First. In that column I focused on nonprofit volunteers. They are often thought of as a cheap way to provide services. But they need as much care and feeding as a paid employee, and sometimes more.

The biggest surprise for me was looking up the profile of the American volunteer. It is compiled by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as part of its Current Population Statistics series of surveys of 60,000 Americans. Once a year it publishes survey results on volunteer activities. You can see the latest report (for 2009) at

Here are some nuggets that caught me by surprise and I suspect you will find some of your preconceptions challenged too:

  • Most Americans do not volunteer.  In 2009 only 27 percent of the population volunteered any time to nonprofit organizations.  


  • Employed people are more likely to volunteer than unemployed people, although a higher proportion of part-timers volunteer than full-timers.


  • People age 35-54 are the most likely to volunteer.  The lowest volunteer rates are for people age 20-24 followed by ages 25-34, and ages over 65.


  • Married individuals are more likely to volunteer than singles, and people with children more than people without children.


  • People with at least college degrees are substantially more likely to volunteer than people with fewer years of formal education.


  • The median number of volunteer hours ranges from 36 hours per year to a high of 90 hours per year.  That is very limited help, suggesting that 20 to 55 volunteers need to be recruited and trained to provide the equivalent hours of one full-time employee.  It also suggests that a volunteer program needs to be fairly large in order to have a meaningful impact on nonprofit work.

 Look for my column later this month for some insights on what this information can mean for volunteer programs at our nonprofits.