Volunteer Labor - How Employment Affects Volunteering

In 2015, 26.6% of Michiganders volunteered for a combined total of 219.08 million hours of service with nonprofit organizations.1 Concerning national comparison, Michigan consistently ranked as the 25th or 26th highest volunteer rate from 2011 to 2015.2 This equated to nearly $5 billion in time donated by community members to support organizations. With around 50,000 nonprofit organizations in Michigan, it is essential to understand how Michigan residents volunteer, providing the capacity needed for nonprofits. As such, volunteer recruitment is a key aspect of nonprofit operations. Nonprofits often depend on volunteers to deliver services. Without this additional capacity, it may hinder program staff in meeting community needs. Knowing this, how should nonprofits act amid changing economic conditions?

The relationship between unemployment and volunteerism rates across U.S. states from 2002 to 2015

This report is intended to provide a brief overview of the relationship between the labor market and volunteering in Michigan as compared to national trends. It will use historical data obtained from the Corporation for National Community Services, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other sources. Lastly, it will provide a summary of the evidence and advice for nonprofit staff dealing with volunteer recruitment.

The U.S. Department of Labor identifies volunteers as those who “donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, [and] and are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service.”3 Of course, many volunteers expect numerous benefits in return for their service. Volunteering has been demonstrated to have a “significant improvement in job prospects” for unemployed persons, depending on the number of hours volunteered.4 Volunteers gain transferable interpersonal skills, especially among young volunteers, preparing them for future work.5 Volunteering generally increases social networks, teaches hard skills, and acts as a positive signaling mechanism for employers.6 Of course, the rates of return concerning benefits derived from volunteering vary widely across regions, professional fields, and labor market conditions.

Understanding how labor market conditions, and economic forces more generally, affect rates of volunteerism may prove useful for nonprofits forecasting future organizational capacity. Program coordinators can adjust their recruitment strategies to maximize volunteer recruitment. This could inform rough predictions of future recruitment rates by relating historical experience with wider trends. Moreover, program leadership can better navigate recessions and a competitive funding landscape with an improved awareness of the extent that they can rely on volunteers. Lastly, programs can better inform potential funders, as well as the public, of the value of volunteerism for individuals and the community.


The volunteering rate is the proportion of volunteers to the population. Unfortunately, the methodologies for measuring how many individuals volunteer are imprecise. Despite this, the volunteering rate is widely used as an indicator of civic engagement since 2002.

A gradual decline in the national volunteering rate has been well documented.7 A slight decline, less than the national average, is also evident in Michigan. With wide variations year-to-year, it’s important to note that this rate depends on multiple factors, such as availability and quality of volunteering opportunities, leisure time, and the labor force. As such, this downward trend has not been conclusively explained, with various explanations invoking a declining sense of community, limited investment in the nonprofit sector, changing demographics, and a troubled economy.

The scope of this report limits its analysis to conditions relating to the labor market, specifically, employment status, unemployment, and labor force participation. The relationship between wages and volunteering is not examined. Previous studies have found that volunteers earn higher wages on average, but this is generally attributed to higher education levels among volunteers.8

Employment Status

Wide variation emerges in volunteering rates when delineated by employment status. Unfortunately, state-specific data does not exist regarding the relationship between employment status and volunteering rates. Nationally, volunteering as a percentage of employment status has remained steady or slightly declined. Moreover, employment status affects the volunteering rate, with over 30% of part-time workers donating their services, followed by full-time workers and the unemployed. Civilians not in the labor force have the lowest volunteering rate.

It’s important to note that the rate of volunteering among full-time, highly educated individuals has dropped the most in recent years, followed by part time and those not in the labor force. This has been attributed to increasing ‘busy-ness’ of people, as well as increased obstacles to volunteering like background checks and other paperwork. However, the exact reasoning behind this decline is unclear.


Unemployment does not seem to drastically affect the overall volunteering rate in Michigan. Despite undergoing a large up-and-down swing in the unemployment rate due to the 2008 recession, the volunteering rate largely remained steadily declining. This indicates that unemployed workers generally do not view volunteering as an effective use of their time while looking for work, despite some evidence that indicates that volunteering is associated with obtaining a job sooner.9 Moreover, combined with the rates of volunteering among civilians not in the labor force, it suggests that volunteering is not a merely a function of free time, even as part-time workers volunteer at the highest rates.10

Viewed nationally, there is a slight association between the unemployment and volunteering rates. Further research tracking this relationship over time may affect how we interpret this phenomenon. It may be that other factors correlated with higher employment rates, like poverty or poor infrastructure, are a better indicator of the volunteering rate.

Labor Force Participation

A higher national labor force participation rate is slightly associated with a higher volunteering rate. The labor force participation rate does not include individuals that are unemployed and not looking for work. This suggests that the gradual decline in the national volunteering rate can in some part be attributed to the declining labor force participation rate, as demonstrated below. However, this is a weak association, and suggests that numerous other factors play a role in an individual’s choice to volunteer.


Overall, the rate of volunteering is somewhat affected by trends in the labor market. It is important that nonprofit program staff have a basic understanding of these relationships:

  • Individuals with part-time positions have the highest rate of volunteering, followed by full-time workers, the unemployed, and those not in the labor force.
  • Volunteering rates remained relatively unaffected to the spike in unemployment due to the 2008 recession. CNCS even noted a slight increase in the number of individuals that volunteered nationally.11
  • Volunteering is not merely function of leisure time. Instead, it relies on numerous factors including level of education, geographic area, available opportunities, and individual outlook that are not accounted for in this report.

How can program staff take advantage of this information?

Staff should target their recruitment materials to communicate the numerous benefits that are obtained through volunteering. Staff should target full-time employees with short-term, low-cost volunteer opportunities that fit into varied schedules. Moreover, staff should coordinate with corporations to organize corporate volunteering programs. Highlight corporations that offer paid time off for volunteering, and ensure that employees understand company policy around volunteering. Organizations should weave volunteering into already existing programs that full-time employees take part in like school programs, corporate-aligned mission events, and professional development opportunities.

Nonprofit organizations should not be unduly worried during recessions about a dramatic loss of volunteers. Instead, the focus should be on developing a sustainable operations model that can cope with the long-term gradual decline in volunteering rates. Nonprofits expect to rely on an increasing number of volunteers, which will be difficult to fulfill.12 Additionally, the worth of each volunteering hour is steadily increasing. To successfully rely on volunteers, it’s necessary to develop skills-based volunteering initiatives that capitalize on a volunteer’s natural strengths. This approach will ensure that nonprofits limit expenditures by taking advantage of specialized skills, as well as narrow the volunteer needs for the organization.

Lastly, it’s important to have an accurate understanding of why volunteers donate their time. Without this awareness, it will be difficult to recruit volunteers at a steady rate. Volunteer coordinators should commit time to learn how to motivate younger volunteers, as well as retain full-time workers, in the future. As students are included in the measure of individuals not in the labor force, and as the volunteer rate for 20 to 24-year-olds is low, organizations should examine ways to increase involvement.13 Service-learning opportunities, for example, may prove to be a valuable method to ingrain a volunteering mindset in youth. Digital volunteering may prove fruitful as well with respect to creating flexible volunteering opportunities with low barriers to participation.

Looking ahead, be aware of how your region is affected by statewide and national trends. Even though data on the volunteering rate is generally confined to states and larger cities, your organization should learn your community’s weaknesses and adapt to best fit those needs. Understanding how individuals in your service area find volunteer opportunities and what motivates them are the key aspects to strong volunteer recruitment.

Works Cited

1. See https://www.nationalservice.gov/vcla/state/Michigan.
2. See https://www.nationalservice.gov/vcla/state-rankings-volunteer-rate. Volunteer Rates, as measured by CNCS for national rankings, represent pooled data from the previous 3-4 years. These rates will not be the same as those measured in the chart A) Volunteer Rate in Michigan.
3. See https://webapps.dol.gov/elaws/whd/flsa/docs/volunteers.asp.
4. See http://cepr.net/documents/publications/volunteer-2013-06.pdf (4).
5. See http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6643/1/RW103.pdf (45). See also https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Raquel_Rego2/publication/301679986_Bridging_volunteering_and_the_labour_market_A_proposal_of_a_soft_skills_matrix/links/57bee20208aed246b0f7a189.pdf.
6. See http://cepr.net/documents/publications/volunteer-2013-06.pdf (9).
7. See http://www.newsweek.com/2014/10/03/volunteering-america-decline-272675.html, http://www.thenonprofittimes.com/news-articles/troubling-numbers-in-volunteering-rates/, or https://blogs.volunteermatch.org/engagingvolunteers/2016/03/25/the-u-s-volunteer-rate-is-still-dropping-why/.
8. See http://cepr.net/documents/publications/volunteer-2013-06.pdf.
9. See https://www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/upload/employment_research_report.pdf.
10. See http://tees.openrepository.com/tees/bitstream/10149/58387/5/58387.pdf.
11. See https://www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/10_0614_via_final_issue_brief.pdf (2).
12. See https://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/us/27volunteer.html.
13. See https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm.

Written on August 16, 2018