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The State of Volunteering in New Jersey

November is the dawn of the holiday season with all the time-honored notions that make up so much of our traditions. One of the most endearing is the image of the family serving meals to the needy at a soup kitchen before giving blessings for their own abundant Thanksgiving meal. Perhaps dated but enduring, thousands of people request to serve at soup kitchens and shelters every year. But what is the bigger picture of volunteerism?

Volunteers are incredibly important to the function of all charities and nonprofit organizations. A strong, dedicated volunteer force allows them to operate at lower costs allowing more money to go directly to providing services. Volunteers are needed all year long, for many organizations more so than during the holidays. Volunteering is more than serving food; it’s fundraising, recruiting membership, helping with events, day to day operations, and so much more. Plus, it’s a core value for many of us – as American as apple pie and, well, Thanksgiving. Yet rates of volunteerism are down across the country and in particular in NJ.

The national averages for volunteerism statistics for 2014 sound impressive: 62.6 million volunteers provided 7.7 billion hours of service with the value of those services at $173 billion. But this is down 1.1% from 2013, not a considerable amount until compared to the past decade which has had steady rates up or down 0.5% per year.

Where does NJ rank in volunteerism? 45th. A four rank drop from 2006 when the state was listed 41st. The national volunteer rate average is 25.6%, NJ sits at 22.4% with 155 million volunteers at 206.3 million hours of service – or $46 billion of services contributed. As one of the most densely populated states with one of the highest per capita income rates, it’s hard to imagine that NJ ranks so low.

According to statistics from The NJ Databank at Rutgers University, NJ seems prime to be at the top of the list for volunteerism with some of the toughest anti-corruption and ethics laws in the country. NJ received the highest grade in 6 of 14 fields on the corruption risk index (procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, pension fund management, ethics enforcement agencies, and redistricting) and is rated first in transparency and accountability for civic engagement.

Why, then, are volunteer rates in NJ so low? There are a number of factors to consider.

Unemployment rates in NJ have dropped this year to closely match the national average but, in 2013 and 2014, the rate was quite still quite high. New Jerseyans who are unemployed are less likely to volunteer. But the good news is that when they do, they volunteer at a higher number of hours; an average of 65 hours annually. Full-time employed Americans volunteer more and in NJ we put in 44 hours annually and the state average is 50 hours a year.

We all know NJ has some of the longest commute times in the nation and there is evidence that communities with long drives, train, and bus rides volunteer at lower rates. There just doesn’t feel like there’s enough time.

Finally, did you know there are 30,000 501(c)(3) organizations in NJ? Probably not, and that may be the biggest challenge to increasing volunteer rates – engagement and “brand” awareness. Having access to better information regarding the needs of nonprofits that meet the passions of potential volunteers could be the key to increased civic participation.

So why do you or don’t you participate in community service or civic engagement or volunteerism?

We’ve spent many an evening sitting around the table having that very discussion. The reasons are as varied and interesting as our volunteers. Some are in it for the feel good element, others are looking for ways to meet new like-minded people, and still others have time to give. All of our volunteers, to a member, participate because they are passionate about service and our mission. And thank goodness, because Table to Table operates primarily on the time, talents and treasures of our volunteer committee. Without them we would not have reached our goal of 14 million meals last year. We would not be able to put together the spectacular events that fund our programs and keep our trucks on the road. Nor would we be able to provide a meal for less than 10 cents.

Nonprofits are important to our economy and our community. They provide much needed services, improve life for residents, employ almost 10% of the population and enrich our society. As Muhammad Ali said: Service is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. Food for thought.

The holidays are upon us, Thanksgiving will be here in a blink, we’d like to take a step back and thank everyone who makes our service to our neighbors in need possible and ask anyone and everyone who would like to make a difference in the lives of others to join us in any way you can. All are welcome.

REAL PEOPLE, REAL STORIES.

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