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Pandemic pressures spur decline in volunteering, but the Mountain West remains above-average

A volunteer peels sweet potatoes.
Morgan McCloy
A volunteer peels sweet potatoes.

News brief: 

People are volunteering less throughout the country, according to data released this year. Several Mountain West states, however, remain well above average when it comes to giving back.

The Volunteering and Civic Life in America report, compiled by AmeriCorps and the U.S. Census Bureau, found that the share of people who participate in formal volunteer opportunities dropped by more than seven percentage points between 2019 and 2021 – the largest since the groups began tracking volunteerism. Some nonprofits across the country have been frustrated with the ability to retain and attract volunteers.

In a recent webinar discussing the rate of civic engagement in the U.S., experts said pandemic and economic stressors were major factors leading to these trends. In Florida, for instance, COVID-19 was especially risky for a disproportionately older population. Additionally, when inflation rates are high, some people have less time to volunteer.

However, Laura Hanson Schlachter, an analyst with AmeriCorps, said the way people interact with their communities is also changing. Volunteerism had been declining for decades prior to the pandemic.

“We also see substantial decreases in other measures of organizational engagement and local collective action,” Schlachter said. “In contrast, buying or boycotting products or services based on the political values or business practices of a company substantially increased, as well as voting in the last local elections.”

In the Mountain West, the rate of formal volunteering – that is, volunteering through an official organization – declined in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Idaho. Wyoming was an outlier, as the state actually saw an increase. Experts there said looser COVID restrictions and a prevalence of smaller rural communities throughout the state led to more people becoming interested in helping their neighbors.

The majority of the region – with the exception of Nevada and New Mexico – still remains above average in terms of philanthropy. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho rank highly when it comes to volunteerism and informal helping – helping neighbors or otherwise giving time in an unofficial capacity – as well as charitable giving.

The benefits of volunteering can include stress, depression and anxiety relief, as well as higher self-esteem.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey