Voting is up, volunteering is down: Midterm lessons for civic engagement

According to a recent report from the University of Maryland, volunteering in the United States hit a 15-year low in 2015 after more than a decade of steady decline.

It’s a surprising finding given that by some metrics, civic participation in America has never been higher. 2018 marked the first time that more than 100 million Americans voted in a midterm election. Two months after the election, final tallies are still being certified, but results to date show that nearly half of the eligible voting-age population cast a ballot in 2018—double the volunteer rate, which hit a low of 24.9 percent in 2015.

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Voter participation in the midterms suggests that people care about the direction of their country, and want to do something about it. In particular, young people, suburban, and rural voters—all groups seen as vital constituencies during the 2018 midterms—are among the groups where volunteering saw its greatest declines. In the suburbs, for example, the volunteer rate dropped by almost five percentage points (from about 30 percent to about 25 percent) from 2004 to 2015.

As it turns out, the same civic impulses that drove people to the polls may also create the conditions for a renaissance in volunteerism. And Americans -- especially in these key groups -- shouldn’t wait another two years to take action. Can we replicate the turnout of last month’s elections to revitalize interest in volunteerism?

Doing so will require a call to service that resonates with a new generation -- the same call that motivated the highest midterm election turnout in American history.

Here’s what that call to service looks like:

Show People They Matter...

Anyone who has knocked on doors or engaged in other get out the vote efforts knows that apathy is a significant hurdle. People who choose not to vote frequently cite frustration with the political process, or a feeling that their vote doesn’t really matter—perhaps due to gerrymandered districts, or because they feel both parties are equally bad, or because they feel people in power don’t care about people like them.

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Volunteerism faces a related hurdle: time is a limited -- and valuable -- resource for individuals, and they want to know what they’re doing matters before they invest time volunteering. Cities like Tulsa are solving this by engaging volunteers in meaningful ways: using the unique skills that volunteers bring to the table, and solving problems that have a tangible outcome for participants.

Tulsa’s Urban Data Pioneers program connects citizens with city leaders to solve community problems through data analysis. Citizens bring a variety of skills to the table—from unique insights about the community to specialized engineering or data analysis expertise. And by looking at specific problems -- like the relationship between blight and violent crime, or the prioritization of street repairs -- they are able to create actionable solutions for their community and see the impact of their work. These solutions often involve city-level changes in policy or spending—and also show volunteers they can have an outsized impact on their communities.

…and Know What Matters to Them

One of the biggest narratives coming out of the 2018 midterms is the youth wave: the 2018 midterms saw an increase in youth participation of 10 percentage points (from 21 percent to 31 percent of eligible voters), according to one estimate. Many credit at least some of this turnout to the activism of the Parkland school shooting survivors, whose message resonated with their peers.

Driving up rates of volunteering requires developing similar insights into what people care about. Consider the Chamizal community garden in El Paso, Texas. The city had previously invested in a community garden, but without having gained buy-in from the community, the garden went unused. The city’s Chief Resilience Officer, with the help of AmeriCorps volunteers and a blueprint from Cities of Service, gathered local citizens to determine the best ways to revitalize and maintain the garden. The result was a community garden that actually met the needs of the neighborhood. Because of the success of the initiative, the city launched a Garden Grant Program to fund other citizen-led garden programs around the city.

Ask, then Ask Again  

Ultimately, increasing volunteerism may come down to simply asking. More than a one-time outreach, voting and volunteering require an ongoing drumbeat of urgency. Even in 2018 with significant get out the vote efforts, some still didn’t hear the call. As one non-voter told the Washington Post, “No one’s ever pushed me to do it; no one’s told me it was important. 

Similarly, while many who work in nonprofits may think all they do is ask people for help, one out of four people say they don’t volunteer because no one asked them to. We know that volunteering has a ripple effect: individuals volunteer because their friends do, and over time, social norms are created that facilitate continued engagement. The Urban Institute found that initiatives like Cities of Service’s Love Your Block neighborhood revitalization program can strengthen social cohesion among participants, and boost the social capital of program leaders—both within their communities as well as with city officials.

So citizens, consider yourselves asked. Vote. Then, volunteer. Community engagement doesn’t end at the ballot box.

Myung J. Lee is Executive Director of Cities of Service, a nonprofit that helps mayors build stronger cities by changing the way local government and citizens work together. Marc A. Ott is executive director of ICMA, the International City/County Management Association.