Volunteerism As a Lever to Promote City Revitalization
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.