Re­port: City sees big drop in vol­un­teerism

But non­profit lead­ers ques­tion method­ol­ogy used in study

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By An­drea Ball

Austin’s rep­u­ta­tion as a vol­un­teer town has lost some of its luster.

In 2007, a fed­eral re­port said the city had the third high­est rate of vol­un­teerism among 50 large U.S. cities. That re­port now has ranked Austin 36th. Ac­cord­ing to an an­nual study by the Cor­po­ra­tion for Na­tional and Com­mu­nity Ser­vice, about 267,000 Austin-area res­i­dents vol­un­teered in 2009, a 43 per­cent de­crease from 2006.

Lo­cal non­profit lead­ers seem at a loss to ex- plain the plunge to­ward the bot­tom of the list. They can’t pin­point any sin­gle fac­tor that can ac­count for such an ex­treme drop. Some ques­tion the re­port’s method­ol­ogy. Oth­ers sug­gest non­profit cut­backs are ham­per­ing vol­un­teer out­reach.

“I think we have to look at a con­stel­la­tion of fac­tors and not just one is­sue,” said Sarah Jane Rehn­borg with the RGK Cen­ter for Phi­lan­thropy and Com­mu­nity Ser­vice.

De­spite the re­port, many lo­cal non­prof­its say they’re flush with vol­un­teers.

Groups such as the Ron­ald McDon­ald House Char­i­ties of Austin, the Travis Audubon So­ci­ety and Marathon Kids — all of which have 300 to 400 vol­un­teers — said they have plenty of peo­ple do­nat­ing their time. Dress for Suc­cess, a non­profit that pro­vides pro­fes­sional at­tire to low-in­come women, has had no prob­lem at­tract­ing its 67 vol­un­teers.

Glen Baum­gart, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Vol­un­teer and Ser­vice Learn­ing Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, said he’s heard the same thing from the 250 to 300 non­prof­its that list their vol­un­teer open­ings on a cen­ter-run web­site.

The new rank­ings are im­por­tant to note but noth­ing to panic over, Rehn­borg said.

“I think the num­bers are fickle to a de­gree,” she said. “I’m much more concerned with our or­ga­ni­za­tions find­ing the peo­ple they need.”

For years, Austin touted it­self as a leader in com­mu­nity ser­vice, and it had the num­bers to prove it.

Since the Cor­po­ra­tion for Na­tional and Com­mu­nity Ser­vice ranked Austin third in its vol­un­teer rate, the city has con­tin­ued to de­cline in the rank­ings.

In the 2008 re­port, the city came in fifth. In 2009, the city was 11th.

The 2010 plunge to 36th has left some lo­cal vol­un­teer lead­ers search­ing for an­swers. One sus­pected cul­prit is the re­port’s method­ol­ogy.

Since the re­port’s in­cep­tion in 2006, the fed­eral vol­un­teer agency has col­lected its in­for­ma­tion through an an­nual phone sur­vey of about 60,000 house­holds, cor­po­ra­tion spokes­woman Ashley Eti­enne said. The re­port mea­sures vol­un­teer­ing with churches, non­prof­its, cor­po­ra­tions and other struc­tured en­vi­ron­ments. It does not cap­ture the more ca­sual, in­de­pen­dent ef­forts such as im­promptu food drives or neigh­bor­hood park cleanups, Eti­enne said.

But in Austin, that’s what a lot of peo­ple are do­ing these days, said Mando Rayo, who co­or­di­nates vol­un­teers for United Way Cap­i­tal Area. And be­cause the method­ol­ogy doesn’t re­flect that change, it’s

‘Austin is an in­no­va­tive town. We’re a cre­ative city. Peo­ple are leav­ing the main­stream non­profit sec­tor, and they’re de­vel­op­ing their own stuff.’

Mando Rayo United Way Cap­i­tal Area

vol­un­teer co­or­di­na­tor, ex­plain­ing how re­port’s method­ol­ogy doesn’t take into ac­count more in­de­pen­dent

vol­un­teer ef­forts

not fully cap­tur­ing Austin’s vol­un­teer scene, he said.

“Austin is an in­no­va­tive town,” he said. “We’re a cre­ative city. Peo­ple are leav­ing the main­stream non­profit sec­tor, and they’re de­vel­op­ing their own stuff.”

Cut­backs at lo­cal non­prof­its might also be hav­ing an ef­fect on the rank­ings, Rehn­borg said. Just a few years ago, Hands on Cen­tral Texas — the United Way Cap­i­tal Area’s vol­un­teer cen­ter — had six full-time em­ploy­ees de­voted to pro­mot­ing com­mu­nity ser­vice. Now they have two.

“We’re still do­ing things; it’s just on a smaller scale,” Rayo said.

Pop­u­la­tion growth can also af­fect the rank­ings, Eti­enne said. Be­tween 2007 and 2009, Travis County’s pop­u­la­tion grew 6.3 per­cent, in­creas­ing from 948,160 to more than 1 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the City of Austin de­mog­ra­pher.

An in­flux of peo­ple af­fects the rate by pump­ing up the over­all pool of po­ten­tial vol­un­teers, but many new­com­ers don’t vol­un­teer right af­ter mov­ing to a new com­mu­nity, she said.

“It takes time to get set­tled in and time to find vol­un­teer op­por­tu­ni­ties that fit them best,” Eti­enne said.

What­ever the rea­son for the fall in rank­ings, Austin is still push­ing vol­un­teerism. The city re­cently won a $200,000 two-year grant from the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion and Bloomberg Phi­lan­thropies.

The money will be used to hire some­one to as­sess the city’s vol­un­teer ef­forts and de­velop a plan to sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease com­mu­nity ser­vice, said Mark Nathan, chief of staff for Mayor Lee Leff­in­g­well. And maybe that staffer will have in­sight into what’s go­ing on with the sag­ging num­bers, he said.

“One of the things the per­son is go­ing to have to do is get to the bot­tom of that ques­tion,” he said.

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