10/24/2013 04:27 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Static State of Philanthropy (Part 3)

We're back with our third post in this series about the state of philanthropy and why giving isn't growing. In the last post, nonprofit expert Carol Rhine shared her thoughts about how the decline in attendance in places of worship -- and the loss of the visible act of tithing -- is one of the factors. Another factor is volunteerism. Although the number of people volunteering is up (like the amount of dollars given is up), the rate is down.

Making a financial donation to a nonprofit is only one way to contribute. For millions of Americans giving the gift of time (and talent) is a part of who they are. This is certainly true at Blackbaud, where 81 percent of employees volunteer. Blackbaud has a culture that functions on a belief that serving others really does help make the world a better place. Whether you volunteer through physical labor or the donation of your professional skills, the simple act of helping others brings out something that is essential to our make up as humans. We live in communities and, therefore, are responsible for working to ensure that those same communities are healthy, that their needs are met, and those who are less fortunate have access to services. In the end, there's nothing like the feeling you get by giving back, the endorphin rush of being engaged, of being a part of something larger. In the end, employees get the added benefit of learning more about nonprofits, which makes them better at their jobs. It's a huge win-win.

Each spring, when National Volunteer Week rolls around, there's always a lot of news in the media about the power of volunteerism. Blackbaud celebrates this week with a volunteer fair, seeking to match opportunities at local nonprofits with employees who want to serve. The headlines we read in May of each year leave us no doubt that gifts of time and talent help deliver necessary services. They confirm that we, as a nation, heavily rely on people power to do mission work.

Given this, you may be surprised to learn -- as Carol reminds us -- that the volunteer rate in the United States declined in 2012. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 64.5 million people volunteered over a year-long period ending in September of 2012. Although that's certainly a lot of people, the rate (how an economist or analyst looks at it) is headed in the wrong direction. This change followed a slight increase in 2011 of one-half of a percent and another drop in 2010 of two percentage points from 2009. So, depending on how you look at the data, volunteerism -- at its best -- is flat.

In 2010, the Corporation for National and Community Service attributed the drop to the decrease in the number of people who continue to serve (and return year over year). Hal speculates that "this suggests not a problem with the volunteer but a problem with the product. When volunteers get the meaning and see the value and results from volunteerism, they increase rather than decrease their time. Doing make-work, being used inefficiently and having no yard stick to measure success are all factors."

Our next post in this series will explore Carol's third hypothesis -- how we are rapidly adopting the use of technology devices that allow us to distance ourselves from each other.

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