Statistics, Bikinis and Volunteers: The New Independent Sector Study on Giving and Volunteering

By Susan J. Ellis

Two weeks ago I was interviewed by a reporter who wanted my reactions to the new Independent Sector/Gallup Report on “Giving and Volunteering” in the United States. A summary is available at the Independent Sector Web site: The reporter noted that the number of individuals reporting participation in volunteer activities had gone up, while the average number of hours contributed had gone down. What did I think of that?

Before answering, I mentioned that I had always liked the following perspective on the meaning of statistics (original source unknown): "Statistics are like bikinis. They reveal what is interesting and conceal what is essential.” Or, consider the story of the scientist studying frog behavior. With exact measurements and careful recording, the scientist shouts “jump” to a frog five times, each time removing one leg to see the difference in distance leaped. Because, by the end of the experiment, the frog does not move at all, the scientist concludes that: “When one removes all four legs of a frog, it goes deaf.”

This elaborate introduction only serves as a caution to us all to examine the assumptions behind the “conclusions” reached about the Independent Sector study--or any other attempt to quantify volunteer activity.

Let's first look at the conclusion--"the number of individuals reporting participation in volunteer activities has gone up." Certainly it is worthwhile--and heartening!--to know that more individuals are engaging in volunteering (assuming, of course, that this data can be trusted) but what does this statistic really mean? Unlike financial giving, where a dollar amount (factoring in inflation) is consistent from year to year, an individual volunteering is not consistent. An hour given as a member of an emergency rescue team has a different value than an hour wrapping holiday toys for hospitalized children. Yes, we all have the same allotment of 24 hours and so “number of hours served as a volunteer” speaks to our use of time, but what does it tells us about its value to the community (or even to the volunteer)?

Moving on to the second part of the conclusion--"the number of hours has gone down"--are we to assume that obtaining the gift of volunteer time is a meaningful goal in and of itself? And that therefore having “more” or “less” of such time means more or less service provided? In some circumstances, organizations are better off cutting their volunteer corps in half, focusing on the most qualified volunteers, and wasting less staff supervisor effort. But such a reorganization plan, as effective as it may be, would be recorded by studies such as the one from IS as a diminishment of volunteer contribution. Hours served do not equal service provided.

From the individual volunteer’s perspective, why was less time spent
volunteering and how does s/he feel about it? If the person wanted to give more hours but couldn’t because of work pressures or family constraints, then a decrease in hours might be perceived as unwanted and therefore negative. But if the decrease in hours is due to positive changes--studying for an advanced degree, re-marrying after a lonely period of divorce , caring for a new baby, etc.--maybe we ought to be amazed that these individuals squeezed out as much time as they did to volunteer at all!

Here are two possible explanations for why the number of hours have gone down:


  • The study has picked up the success of such programs as City Cares or Make a Difference Day, which offer people the chance to contribute volunteer talents without making a long-term commitment. If the overall numbers of volunteers have gone up, this means that fears that such one-time projects will divert potential long-term volunteers might be unfounded. In fact, the data may give evidence that the one-day events have brought out more people who had not been involved before.



  • Perhaps the drop in hours served is an indicator of effective volunteer management! In the past, organizations complacently wasted a lot of volunteered time. Today, with pressure to efficiently make use of a volunteer’s available schedule, perhaps we have succeeded in facilitating even greater accomplishments in less time. Of course, we can’t tell, since none of the studies looks at achievements, impact, or even the roles volunteer fill (reporting field of endeavor does not explain the work contributed).


I find the IS study fascinating--and thank them sincerely for continuing to provide us with the only consistent source of data on volunteering at all. But I want us all to avoid snap judgments based on those figures. For example, for a long time I’ve taken exception to how the data correlating educational level and volunteering is interpreted. The statistics tell us that the higher a person’s educational level, the more likely they are to volunteer. Do you think this is due to education leading people to volunteer or might it be due to our tendency to recruit volunteers most like the staff they will be working with? How often do we actively recruit blue collar volunteers?

Take a look at the new figures and share what you think. What do they
mean to you? To your program? Do they reflect your experience in running a volunteer program? What data might be more valuable to volunteer administrators?

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint