c. 1999 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON _ Americans are more willing to give their time to good causes than their money these days.
A recent survey of household giving and volunteering shows that despite a booming economy, the financial contribution rate stayed at just about the same place it has been for some 30 years, decreasing ever so slightly _ to 2.1 percent of pre-tax household income in 1998, compared with 2.2 percent in 1995.
Still, even that small dip is worrisome to charities because incomes have risen far more than charitable giving in the past several years.
The upbeat news is that volunteerism is at record levels.
“The number of Americans volunteering _ 109 million _ is staggering,” said Susan Saxon-Harrold, vice president for research for Independent Sector, which commissioned the poll by the Gallup Organization.
The 1998 volunteer figure, 56 percent of the adult population, is an all-time high. It represents an increase of 13.7 percentage points since 1995 _ a happy surprise, said Independent Sector President Sara Melendez.
“It reinforces our faith in the wonderful generosity of Americans in donating their time,” Melendez said.
Independent Sector, a national coalition of some 700 major charities and grant-makers, has conducted surveys of American patterns of giving and volunteering six times since 1988. This year’s conclusions come from Gallup interviews conducted May-July 1999 with a national in-person sample of 2,553 adult Americans.
The Independent Sector poll doesn’t include some of the wealthiest Americans, who would drive up the dollar amounts of giving.
“The wealthy are too hard to get to,” said Michael McCormack, senior programmer analyst at Independent Sector. “They live in gated communities, and our interviewers were literally knocking on doors.
“Our survey is more a reflection of middle America,” McCormack said.
As in past years, over half the dollars contributed go to religious organizations, with human services a distant second at 9 percent. (The wealthiest Americans tend to give more to arts and education than to religion.)
Though the percentage of income given remains stagnant according to the survey, the actual dollar amount given has increased as salaries have gone up.
For groups that depend on volunteers, the future looks bright, Melendez said. The most dramatic rise in volunteering since the last survey was in the 35-44 age range _ a 12-point increase to 67 percent. All adult volunteers accounted for a total of 19.9 billion hours, with a value of $225.9 billion, according to Independent Sector estimates.
Americans seem to grow more altruistic as they grow grayer. Both volunteering and giving went up among people over age 65, another hopeful sign for charities since the number of Americans over 65 is expected to more than double over the next 30 years to 70 million.
What accounts for the dramatic jump from 93 million volunteers in 1995 to 109 million in 1998?”There have been many more opportunities recently for people to do one-time and short-term volunteering,”said Susan J. Ellis, president of Energize Inc., a consulting, training and publishing firm specializing in volunteers.
“Things like Caring Day and Make-a-Difference Day and Martin Luther King Day have raised the visibility factor” of possible outlets for volunteerism, Ellis said.
At Independent Sector they pin their hopes on the connection between volunteering and giving.
“Those who volunteer more contribute more,” said research director Saxon-Harrold. “In fact, 84 percent of all charitable contributions were given by households where there was at least one volunteer.”
Independent Sector’s goal is to get Americans in every household to give 5 percent of their pre-tax income to charity. “That’s a lofty goal,” Melendez said ruefully.
Eds: The full results of the survey are available at this Web site: http://www.independentsector.org.
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