The pundits often describe our country as fractious and disconnected — but Americans' commitment to strengthen our communities through service reflects a far different story. Volunteerism and civic involvement in our nation is alive and well. Last year alone, the number of formal volunteers reached its highest level in five years, as 64.3 million Americans volunteered through an organization, an increase of 1.5 million from 2010.
Overall, one in four adults volunteered almost 8 billion hours through an organization, providing an estimated economic value of $171 billion. In addition to volunteering through organizations, two out of three Americans serve informally by helping out their neighbors, an increase of 9.5 percentage points from last year. The findings come from Volunteering and Civic Life in America, a report issued last week by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship.
These findings shine a light on a civic reawakening that is happening across the nation, as Americans offer their time and talent in communities devastated by disasters, help veterans and military families become employed, coordinate food drives, help their neighbors and lead programs at their local community centers.
We see the miracle of the American spirit when millions of citizens from across the country volunteer to help one another. We see the power of role models as thousands of mentors come through classrooms and after-school programs to provide stability in the lives of children. We see the impact of pro bono service with hundreds of businesses, large and small, mobilizing their employees to serve their communities through skills-based volunteering. And, in the last two months, we have seen thousands of volunteers come together to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Even in tough times, Americans are stepping up. In fact, some of the busiest people are the most active volunteers: moms and dads. More than 33 percent of parents with school-age children contributed more than 2.5 billion hours of their time to volunteer efforts in 2011, most of it to school-based projects, underscoring the pivotal role that schools play as hubs for local volunteer efforts. Working mothers volunteered at an even higher rate of nearly 40 percent.
When comparing states, Utah, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota lead the way with the highest levels of volunteering respectively. Among other key findings, the report shows that almost half of Americans actively participated in civic, religious and school groups.
Volunteering and civic engagement are the cornerstone of a strong nation, and service has long been a hallmark of the American spirit. Benjamin Franklin, who started the first volunteer firefighter company and first public library, held the conviction that our society thrived when citizens come together in a spirit of cooperation to accomplish great things through service to others. Citizens who volunteer, collaborate, and trust each other are part of the solution to strengthen communities across this country, which makes for a better America.
Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that promotes volunteering and service. Ilir Zherka is the executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working at the forefront of our nation's civic life.