The Scope of Volunteer Activity and Public Service
Brown, Eleanor, Law and Contemporary Problems
ELEANOR BROWN [*]
The idea of public life in America is premised on individual initiative. Democracy demands that citizens give public voice to their views; a market economy demands that people earn their keep. When they are not satisfied with the results of such large and largely impersonal institutions, Americans volunteer. In 1996, the most recent year in which a presidential election was held, 54.2 percent of the adult population voted; 63.2 percent worked; and 48.8 percent volunteered.  Although the proportion of the population volunteering in 1996 fell short of the proportion voting, the amount of time donated loomed large in contrast to the time it takes to vote: Volunteers gave an average of 4.2 hours of their time every week.  Delivering meals to shut-ins, raising money for the PTA, coaching Little League--in myriad ways, volunteers weave important pieces of the social fabric.
This article provides an overview of the scope of volunteering in the United States. It begins with the question "What is a volunteer?" and, with issues of definition and measurement in mind, surveys the available estimates of the size of the volunteer workforce. It then considers the purposes to which this labor is put. Turning from volunteer work to its workforce, it examines some determinants of volunteering, paying particular attention to factors shaping the volunteer activities of the young and the old.
A. What Is a Volunteer?
Scholars have striven to be precise in their usage of the word volunteer. One particularly thoughtful definition defines a volunteer as
an individual engaging in behavior that is not bio-socially determined (e.g., eating, sleeping), nor economically necessitated (e.g., paid work, housework, home repair), nor sociopolitically compelled (e.g., paying one's taxes, clothing oneself before appearing in public), but rather that is essentially (primarily) motivated by the expectation of psychic benefits of some kind as a result of activities that have a market value greater than any remuneration received for such activities. 
In short, volunteering is purposeful activity that is not compelled and the productive value of which is not captured by the volunteer.
One might quibble with the notion that volunteering needs to result in something that has market value, in contrast to activities that were intended to have market value but went awry, or ones that pursued goals not related to market value such as lobbying on behalf of unpopular causes. Generally, though, this definition is an apt one for the purposes at hand. It encompasses informal volunteering--good deeds done directly, such as shopping for a frail neighbor or babysitting for a harried one, unmediated by any formal organization, such as a church or a school, through which larger-scale volunteer efforts are coordinated. Such good deeds are not compelled, and they yield value that is not materially returned to the volunteer. The definition also extends to stipended volunteers. As the word "stipend" implies, programs such as AmeriCorps offer modest pay to doers of good works, on the theory that society needs full-time volunteers and that it is hard for very many people to give so much time freely and continu e to keep body and soul together. As long as stipended volunteers are employed in "activities that have a market value greater than any remuneration received," they are volunteers as defined above.
The boundaries to volunteering drawn by this definition are by no means universally employed, even among scholars. Ram Cnaan, Femida Handy, and Margaret Wadsworth survey this and other definitions of volunteering used in legal and academic sources, and identify four dimensions addressed by all of them: (1) the voluntary nature of the act; (2) the nature of the reward, whether entirely psychic or simply sufficiently unremunerative for the act to remain largely donative in nature; (3) the auspices under which the work is performed, either orchestrated by an organization or not necessarily so; and (4) the beneficiaries of the act and their relationship to the actor, be they strangers or simply removed from the family circle.  As one reviews data on volunteering, this taxonomy will provide a helpful checklist in keeping track of differences in definitions and how they shape the data that, in turn, shape one's view of the volunteer landscape.
The data on volunteers come largely from household surveys; therefore, to the extent interviewers do not propose definitions of volunteering as nuanced as that set out above, any interpretation of household data is aided by a sense of what volunteering means to the general public. To get a sense of the public's understanding of the concept of "volunteer," Cnaan et al. construct twenty-one examples of persons engaged in acts that contain elements of volunteering.  They asked a sample of 514 persons to rank, on a scale from one ("definitely a volunteer") to five ("not a volunteer"), how firmly each scenario fits their notion of volunteering.  The example respondents ranked highest is the only one that is "pure" on all four dimensions, describing someone who freely chooses to work unpaid through an organization to benefit a stranger: "An adult who offers his or her time to be a Big Brother or Big Sister."  Respondents ranked a high school student giving a presentation on leadership at a religious confe rence as more purely a volunteer than one working for a nonprofit to add a line to a resume.  In turn, the resume builder is ranked above the student compelled by a graduation requirement to do community service. 
B. Volunteering in the United States
In May 1989, the Current Population Survey ("CPS") of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics included supplementary questions about volunteering done in the preceding twelve months.  The CPS reaches roughly 60,000 households, gathering information on more than 150,000 individuals in those households.  The results of this large-scale survey suggest that about twenty percent of Americans volunteer in a given year. 
In contrast to the CPS estimates, a series of smaller surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization for Independent Sector ("IS") finds much higher rates of volunteering. The CPS estimate of thirty-eight million volunteers in 1988-89 is bracketed chronologically by IS estimates of eighty million adult volunteers, or forty-five percent of the adult population in 1987-88, and ninety-eight million adult volunteers, or fifty-four percent of all adults in 1989-90.  Although the IS survey covers fewer than two percent as many individuals as the CPS does,  there are reasons to suspect the IS estimates are more representative of volunteering among adults.
First, the IS questions are posed in ways likely to elicit more extensive recall of volunteer activity. The CPS allowed for responses by proxy, and about half of the volunteering data was collected from persons other than the person to whom the data refer. Such proxies "were significantly less likely to report volunteer activity than respondents representing only themselves,"  which suggests that proxies were not always aware of the volunteer activities of the persons they represented. 
Second, the IS data cover age groups and employ definitions of volunteering that differ from those used by the CPS. The IS data include informal volunteering, while the CPS excludes it and the IS survey covers persons ages eighteen and up, in contrast to the CPS, which covers persons ages sixteen and up.  These differences can be expected to yield a higher count of volunteers in the IS data as IS draws a broader definition of volunteering and excludes an age group in which rates of volunteering were, in the 1980s, typically low.
Based on data from the 1996 IS survey, just under half, 48.8 percent, of the adult population volunteered at some time during the twelve months preceding its spring survey in 1996.  Volunteers donated an average of 4.2 hours per week, for a total of 20.3 billion hours in 1996.  Of this total, 15.7 billion hours fall into a narrower definition of volunteering mediated by organizations, referred to as "formal volunteering."  Using average rates of compensation in the non-farm economy, this formal volunteering had a labor-market value of more than $200 billion dollars.  Because the IS questionnaire defined volunteering in part as "actually working in some way to help others for no monetary pay,"  and therefore did not capture stipended volunteering, these figures underestimate the number of hours worked by volunteers, as defined by Smith. 
C. Utilizing Volunteer Labor
Volunteers are used throughout the economy, from the arts to youth development to supporting churches, synagogues, and other religious communities. As shown in Table 1, IS data classify volunteer assignments according to fifteen categories--fourteen specific categories, plus one catch-all. With two exceptions, volunteer assignments are classified by their area of endeavor, using the following categories: the arts, education, environment, health, human services, international or foreign concerns, political organizations and campaigns, private and community foundations, public and societal benefit, adult recreation, religious organizations, and youth development. The other categories describe the organizational framework within which volunteers operate: informal volunteering, whatever the nature of the service provided, and giving time to work-related organizations, whatever their missions might be.
The number of activities volunteers take on and the numbers of hours they devote to volunteering vary widely, but the typical volunteer works for a single organization. Sixty-two percent of the volunteers in the 1996 IS survey report volunteer involvement with one organization only.  Twenty-eight percent of …
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Publication information: Article title: The Scope of Volunteer Activity and Public Service. Contributors: Brown, Eleanor - Author. Journal title: Law and Contemporary Problems. Volume: 62. Issue: 4 Publication date: Autumn 1999. Page number: 17. © 2009 Duke University, School of Law. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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