Wouldn't It Be Nice to Really Know

By Susan J. Ellis

I just ended yet another telephone conversation with a newspaper reporter who was doing research for an article about volunteering.   As always, he began by wanting statistics.  And, as usual, I was forced to reply:  “We really don’t have a lot of facts.”

Trends in volunteering are reported largely based on observation and anecdotes rather than on hard data.  Or, worse, extrapolated globally from very narrow research.  The very first American study on who volunteers and where volunteering occurs was conducted only in 1970 – so “facts” earlier than that can only be inferred from a wide variety of non-statistical sources. Then no one did another study of any note until the 1990s.  Today, the American government (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and other governments around the world are finally collecting rudimentary data on an annual basis, but this research is more tantalizing for what’s not revealed than for what is. 

In December 2001 I offered the Hot Topic, “It's Time to Start Counting Volunteers Seriously” (/hot-topics/2001/december), in which I questioned why all data on volunteering is collected only by asking individuals about their volunteering habits, without any balancing research on what organizations report about their involvement of volunteers in their work.   Labor statistics most often are collected from employers, not their employees, and companies are mandated to provide much of the information.  Yet it remains optional for nonprofit and government agencies to report what volunteer services they receive – and very few report this at all.   (Remember:  What we don’t assess, we don’t value.)

Because questions about volunteering are almost always asked as a small part of a larger study, respondents are rarely asked more than a few questions and often just one or two.  These are generally a variation on the theme of: “Have you volunteered somewhere in the past 12 months?” or “ What do you estimate as the amount of time you volunteer in an average month?”

The problem is that volunteering is actually more complex – by many magnitudes – than paid work.   So, a simplistic overview of aggregate numbers is not enough for us to understand what’s going on.   If we ever hope to encourage researchers to do serious data collection about our field, then we need to articulate some better questions to ask.  To this end, here are a few possible queries the answers to which would certainly interest me – how about you?

From Individuals about Their Civic Engagement…

  • How many different sorts of volunteering did you do this year and for how many different organizations?
  • What types of volunteer assignments do you carry (not just where do you do it)?
  • If you also volunteered last year, did you take on additional volunteer work this year?  Or did you leave one volunteer role to take on another? (Why?)
  • Do you volunteer regularly on a weekly or monthly schedule?  Or is the majority of your volunteer work one day at a time or seasonal (like Christmastime)? Or Both?
  • If you mainly volunteer for one-day projects…
    • Is this a change from the past when you did ongoing volunteer work?  Or did the availability of one-day projects enable you to serve for the first time or more frequently?
    • Do you return to the same organization/project or do you purposely select different causes each time? 
  • Do you engage in single days of service as part of an organized group, such as your place of worship or employment?  Do you repeat days of service to continue as part of this group, regardless of the project selected?
  • When you’ve done a single day of service, have you ever been directly invited to join that organization as an ongoing volunteer?
  • Why do you stay at this volunteer work?
  • Does it matter to you if the organization is a nonprofit, government agency, or for-profit?  Would be more or less likely to offer your services if one or the other?
  • Do you ever take members of your family along when you volunteer?  Who and what ages?  Do you ever take friends?
    • Did an organization ever refuse to allow you to volunteer with one or more children?
  • If you stopped some form of volunteer service this year, why?
  • Why do you think organizations want volunteers in the first place?
  • Has volunteering ever helped you in your work or professional life?  How?
  • If you were required to do “community service” in college or even high school, did it introduce you positively to volunteering, reinforce volunteering you had already been doing, or turn you off from further volunteering?
  • In your experience, what has changed about volunteering in the last twenty years?

From Organizations about Patterns in Volunteering by Setting…

First, I’d love every organization that receives money from any government source or private foundation to be asked to report solid information about their involvement of volunteers, including such things as how they define the term, what exactly volunteers do, and whether they include board members in their tally, or student interns, or mandated service, etc.  Then I’d want to know – from the “end user” of volunteers – about the age breakdown, gender profile, and all sorts of demographics of their volunteer corps.  If we ever get comparable data from different types of settings, then my further questions would be:

  • Are there clear patterns of volunteering preference by any characteristic?
  • After accounting for population limitations, is rural volunteering really different from urban volunteering?
  • Let’s combine several data sets and see what happens.  Instead of simply saying, “most people over age 50 want X or Y” (all those Baby Boomer studies), what would we learn if we compare:
    • People over age 50 who are college graduates vs. over age 50 and only graduated high school? 
    • People over age 65 who have a track record of volunteering for at least 25 years vs. those who rarely volunteered before retirement?
    • People who volunteer the same skills they use in their paying work (pro bono or donated professional services) vs. people who consciously choose totally different, even recreational, roles as volunteers? 
  • Can we see measurable differences in volunteering trends in schools vs. health care vs. environmental protection?  Why?
  • Is church attendance always an indicator of volunteer service (as past studies have concluded) or does this vary from one type of volunteer work or setting to another?  Might there be, for example, some form of volunteering in which the opposite conclusion can be drawn?

I am not an academic researcher and have not attempted to word the questions above in language that would pass muster for statistical validity.  That’s not the point.  I am simply trying to offer the scope of questions that could be posed, if we stopped assuming “all volunteers” can be predicted from a few.  Would we compare data about nurses to data about truck drivers?  Rarely. So let’s acknowledge that the characteristics, trends, and implications of data will be different for volunteers who are nursing home visitors, Little League coaches, museum docents, or stream water monitors.  And if there are not differences, wouldn’t that be important to know, too?

What volunteer data questions would you want the answers to?

How could/would you use such data?
What practices might you change in your volunteer program if you knew more details about the general volunteering demographics in your country?

Non-U.S. residents please share your experiences. Are national (or other) studies conducted in your country? How often? If so, how do you use the information?  

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