Thursday, April 24, 2014

Where are the volunteers?

Have you ever wondered why it seems like you see the same people engaged in the efforts of numerous non-profits, churches, fire companies, and youth organizations within your community? It’s not an illusion. Those tireless souls really are involved in everything. They not only want to be, but they have to be because no almost one else is giving up their time.

For a state and a people that pride themselves on being leaders, New Yorkers, as a rule, sure do a poor job of showing it.

The Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship produce an annual report that looks at volunteerism rates across the nation. The Empire State ranks 50th, with just 20.6% of its residents volunteering. Now, compare that to first-ranked Utah (43.8%) and our neighbors like Vermont (34.4%) and Pennsylvania (26.7%).

It’s a little unsettling to realize that observations about heavily-engaged volunteers aren’t anecdotal and really do emphasize the lack of community pride in New York. Think about it: Only 1 out of every 5 residents cares enough about our neighbors and our neighborhoods to lend a hand.

The lack of participation is pretty universal when you break down the demographics. Only 18.1% of older adults volunteer, as compared to 22.7% of Generation Xers, 16.3% of young adults, 17.9% of college students, and 20% of teenagers. Our highest rates of volunteerism come from parents (25.9%) veterans (25.4%), and baby boomers (24.2%).

Even though the parental participation rate is fairly high versus the rest of New Yorkers, it still lags nationally where the median is 36%, topped by a whopping 52.8% of parents who are engaged in Utah. New York, just as in its overall rankings, sits in 50th place.

What does that say about New York parents? Worse yet, what do our overall numbers say about our state in general?

If parents aren’t volunteering, their kids won’t (proven by the statistics) and likely their own parents didn’t (proven by the statistics). We evidently have a culture in New York that sees volunteerism as something foreign.

It’s counterintuitive, because we should have one of the highest - if not just middling - participation rates based on apparent need alone. God knows so many people need help. New York is the 29th most-impoverished state in the Union (Buffalo is the third-poorest city in the US). We rank 27th in the nation in terms of disability rate. We have the 24th greatest population of senior citizens (in terms of percentage). 23% of New Yorkers drop out of school. There are almost 2,000 volunteer fire departments in the state.

It’s unknown if New York’s volunteerism numbers will ever dramatically improve. One would have thought that the Great Recession would have been a wake-up call. In past economic collapses volunteerism skyrocketed because people were compelled to help those hit hardest, they had time on their hands, and people stuck closer to –and became more interested in - their communities. That didn’t happen this time. In 2009, just as the Recession started to come to an end, New York’s volunteerism rate was 19% actually worse (though not much) than where we are now. 
So, what can we do?

For starters, if you or your family have ever partaken in an event or club run by volunteers (Easter egg hunts, Boy Scout troops, little league teams, church school, etc.) or had a property or life saved by unpaid first responders, thank those who made that all possible. A simple “thank you” goes a long ways in validating their efforts. 

Secondly, take the time to participate yourself. Make it a point to help others. Join a community organization. Assist a youth group. Go out of your way to make one’s day (if not one’s life) brighter. It’s challenging, fun, and extremely rewarding. There’s an unmatched joy that’s had in giving and watching others receive the services you provide.

There’s a reason that the 20.6% do what they do. Let’s not let them hog all the fun.

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