Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Where Have All The Volunteers Gone?

April 7, 1997

How is your organization doing? Are you struggling to keep membership and participation? Do you have enough willing hands to share the work? If not, don't feel alone.

The decline of organizational participation. Sociologist Robert Putnam, in a classic 1995 article, "Bowling Alone," has documented the decline of volunteerism, civic engagement, and affiliation with social institutions in the United States. Here are some disturbing trends.

  • Church attendance has dropped by a sixth since the 60s.
  • Regular volunteers, as opposed to "occasional" volunteers, dropped by a sixth from 1974 to 1989.
  • Labor Union membership has declined from a high of 32.5 percent in 1953 to 15.8 percent in 1993.
  • The PTA declined in membership from 12 million in 1964 to 5 million in 1982 before making a modest recovery to 7 million in 1995.
  • Membership in the National Federation of Women's Clubs is down by 59 percent from 1964.
  • Membership in the League of Women voters is off 42 percent since 1969.
  • A 50 percent decline in women’s organizations since the late 60s. A 25 percent decline in men’s organizations since the early 80s.
  • Volunteers in the Boy Scouts are off 26 percent since 1970.
  • Membership in fraternal organizations: Lions off 12 percent since 1983, Elks off 18 percent since 1979, Shriners off 27 percent since 1979, Jaycees off 44 percent since 1979, Masons off 39 percent since 1959.
  • Despite a 10 percent increase in the number of bowlers between 1980 and 1993, bowling league participation is off 40 percent.

Among the college educated, total association membership declined 26 percent. Among high school graduates, the number fell 32 percent. For those who didn't finish high school, the number dropped 25 percent.

At all educational and social levels, counting all sorts of group memberships, the number of association memberships has fallen by a fourth over the past quarter of a century. This has happened even though more Americans are more highly educated and middle-aged - factors that favor social involvement. Membership in professional societies has risen but at rates less than one would expect.

America still ranks high worldwide. However the decline is greater than in any other country. If the trend continues, within twenty-five years the United States will fall to the midpoint between countries of the world.

Why does it matter?

Members of associations are much more likely than nonmembers to engage in polities, to spend time with neighbors and to express social trust. Putnam found that in a study of 35 countries, the greater the participation in associations, the more trusting are the citizens.

Putnam summarizes research showing that in fields like education, urban poverty, unemployment, control of crime and drug abuse and even health, communities do better when people participate in voluntary associations. Social networks help with job placement and economic collaboration.

In his own research of 20 Italian regions, Putnam found more effective government in communities where citizens participated in a variety of community organizations. He also found better schools, faster economic development and lower came. When community members joined together; the resulting networks, norms and social trust meant greater coordination and cooperation.

Putnam says, "It is about giving back, reciprocity and trust. Instead of 'I', the 'we' becomes important." The trend away from a 50s style small town, middle class civic life with its closely knit social, economic and political ties is not all bad. The loosening of tight social ties has contributed to the decline of intolerance and discrimination. The "in" crowd and clubby associations can lead to corruption and "back room" politics.

Why is this happening? Here are a few explanations.

  • The break down of the family.
  • The movement of women into the labor force.
  • More mobility in society. However, home ownership and residential stability - traditional hallmarks of stability and community participation - are greater now than in the 50s and 60s.
  • Changes of scale in the economy. There is a decline of local businesses in favor of national and multinational franchises and stores. With supermarkets, Wal-marts, shopping malls and electronic shopping, there are fewer and fewer communal gathering places.
  • Television and other technological transformations of leisure. Entertainment and sports are now spectator activities. Leisure is more individualized. Television makes our communities wider and shallower.
  • The rising disparity of incomes. Social cohesion and interest in the public good break down when there are huge gaps between the wealthy and the poor.
  • Increased workplace demands. The work week is lengthened at the expense of time for community or family.
  • The time crunch facing families who struggle with two income households, children's activities, commuting, materialistic aspirations and competing choices.
  • Individualistic values, competition and seif-centeredness are replacing communal values, trust and cooperation.