Volunteers in the U.S.: Who Donates the Time?

Article excerpt

One in every five Americans does some volunteer work for church, school, other organizations, according to Current Population Survey

Every year, millions of Americans give their time, talents, and skills, without pay, to a wide variety of organizations and institutions. Under the auspices of schools, hospitals, churches, and so forth, these volunteers perform many different tasks, such as assisting the elderly or disabled, coaching children's athletics, helping with church or school activities, or providing staff assistance for political or other organizations.

Who are these volunteers? Where, or for whom, do they perform volunteer work? How much time do they spend at these unpaid activities? Some answers to these questions are available from data obtained from supplementary questions included in the May 1989 Current Population Survey.(1) This article reports on the findings from the survey and compares them to findings from earlier surveys on the same subject, providing a historical perspective on the phenomenon of volunteer activity.

Who volunteers?

About 38 million people were reported as having volunteered for work without pay for an institution or organization at some time during the year ended in May 1989.(2) This represented about 1 out of every 5 persons in the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years old and over. The incidence of voluntarism varied considerably by a number of demographic and economic characteristics. For instance, persons in the 35- to 44-year-old age group were more likely than those younger or older to have done some volunteer work. Whites were more likely than blacks or Hispanics to report volunteer work. And, college graduates were more likely to contribute their time and skills as volunteers than persons with fewer years of schooling.


Overall, about 22 percent of women and 19 percent of men did some work as unpaid volunteers for an organization or institution during the year ended in May 1989. The proportions of persons with some volunteer work ranged from about 13 percent among women under age 25 to 31 percent among those 35 to 44 years old, tapering off to 18 percent among those 65 and over. The pattern was similar for men. The fact that women were slightly more likely than men to volunteer, combined with the fact that they out-number men in the population, meant that the majority (56 percent) of volunteers were women.

Part of the reason why women were somewhat more likely than men to be volunteers has to do with their employment and family status. Despite rapid labor force gains, women make up a larger proportion of part-time workers or persons not in the labor force. And, women in both groups had higher volunteer rates than male counterpart. (See table 1.) The is probably because substantial proportions of the women in the groups were between the ages of 20 and 54 - a period during which childrearing is a major activity for most women. Thus, through their children's school, sports, or religious activities, mothers have many opportunities to volunteer, Indeed, such volunteering is often expected of both parents.

Married men and women were more likely than those in other marital statuses to have volunteered at some time during the year ended in Many 1989. One reason, of course, for the higher incidence rate among husbands and wives is that they are more likely than unmarried persons to have children living with them. And, as noted above, parents usually have many more volunteer opportunities readily available than persons who do not have children. As the allowing tabulation shows, higher proportions of fathers and mothers were volunteers than men or women with no children under 18 years old.

                       Men    Women
With no children
 under 18 years old    16.8    19.1
With children under
 18 years old          22.6    26.3
  6 to 17 years old,
    none Younger       23. …