Volunteerism As a Lever to Promote City Revitalization

Volunteering.jpg Last week, The Corporation for National and Community Service released a report on volunteerism in US cities. Their primary finding was that rates of volunteerism are highest in cities they categorize as being part of “middle America,” such as Salt Lake City, Austin, Seattle, Portland and Tulsa. I find the study’s conclusions fascinating.

To begin, volunteer rates in the cities they studied are higher, I confess, than I would have expected. Minneapolis/St. Paul ranked the highest with 40.5 percent of its population volunteering. That’s an incredible number. Las Vegas ranked lowest, with 14.5 percent volunteering. That is higher than I would have expected, however, given how new Las Vegas’ population is. Consider that Las Vegas experienced 64% population growth from 1990 to 1999. That means that a significant portion of its population has not had decades to become enfranchised by and involved in the community.

And the study confirms that such enfranchisement is important: “…communities in which residents have high levels of attachment…are likely to have higher volunteering rates. For example, Minneapolis-St. Paul, the number one city for volunteering, also has the highest home ownership rate of all the cities included in the report.” Based on census data, Minneapolis’ population was projected to grow about 10 percent from 1995 to 2005.

While the report offers a range of interesting data, two other findings struck me in particular. First, there seems to be a correlation between high commute time and decreased volunteering. The study also points out that long commutes to work can drive down an area’s volunteering rate not only by limiting the time an individual has available for volunteering, but also by decreasing the time people have to interact with others at their workplace, house of worship, club, or other social network.

Those of us who live in major urban centers with sprawl and difficult commutes (I live in Boston) could have told you that instinctively, but having the data to support that instinct should both put pressure on cities to solve their commuting problems and the high cost of housing that forces people further out, while encouraging them to support smaller-scale development and urban revitalization.

Why? Because the other striking finding was that, “Cities with high volunteer rates are cities that have lower crime, higher employment, better education, and a better quality of life.” Clearly, there is a chicken-and-egg question here. Does volunteerism drive these other traits, or do these traits drive higher rates of volunteerism? The answer probably is both, and I would argue that the poverty literature backs that up. Nevertheless, the point to note here is that volunteerism is a lever to be pushed, right along with the popular revitalization levers of the day, such as smart growth, education innovation or crime reduction.

Cities should pay attention to the report’s findings, but so should individual donors. For decades we have been hearing that people increasingly prefer to give their money over their time. Bob Putnam’s work on the decline of “social capital” see Bowling Alone for a terrific read), can help explain some of this trend. Understandable or not, The Corporation for National and Community Service’s study suggests that money over time may not always be good enough.

Tiziana Dearing

Posted at 6:32 AM, Jul 12, 2007 in Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comments (2)


I lead a volunteer-based organization in Chicago, that connects inner city kids with workplace volunteers. Your focus on distance and crime supports my own understanding of the challenges big cities have in providing more volunteer-based mentoring, tutoring, learning, and enrichment to inner city kids than do smaller cities.

I use maps to show the areas of high poverty in Chicago, and overlays to show locations of tutor/mentor programs. I've also created maps with overlays showing businesses, churches, hospitals, which might help companies focus on where they encourage volunteerism. In addition, these overlays can highlight expressways that connect people who live in the suburbs with their jobs in the city.

My goal with this information is to help people think more creativly about where and how they volunteer, as well as where they recruit.

For instance, to recruit volunteers for non profits in the West side of Chicago, I'd try to talk to people in churches in the far west suburbs, as well as in companies in the downtown area. If I can get a team of people to take the train to work one day a week, and car pool home, this group could volunteer at any of the tutor/mentor programs located near the expressway that leads from downtown to the far west.

If we cannot encourage such innovative thinking I'm afraid the kids who need the extra help will be left behind, because of the distance, and the fear, of volunteering in these areas.

Posted by: Dan Bassill

Volunteering is a source of great social good, but it does not alter the structure of a society or a culture at its root: it is a balm, a salve. To imply that high voluteerism lowers crime rate is to give voluteerism far more credit than it is due: healthy, robust, low crime cities offer an environment which allows more volunteering.

Posted by: Ella Speed [TypeKey Profile Page]