Report: City sees big drop in volunteerism
But nonprofit leaders question methodology used in study
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
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.