Next week marks National Volunteer Week–an annual campaign led by Point of Light to celebrate the power of the individual to spark change and improve the world. Here in Hawai‘i, the state legislature passed a resolution officially recognizing April 15 to 22, 2018 as Volunteer Week in Hawai‘i. The resolution came at the urging of a coalition of nonprofits that launched #VolunteerWeekHawaii as a means to boost our state’s poor national ranking in volunteerism rates. But is Hawai‘i really deserving of its dismally low marks among the 50 states?
First, it’s important to understand how the rankings–issued by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)–are calculated. These rankings are comprised of data collected through the Current Population Survey (CPS). CPS is a monthly survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics of about 60,000 households (approximately 100,000 adults) across the United States. Volunteer statistics are collected through two annual supplements to the CPS: the Volunteer and Civic Engagement supplements, which have been conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census each fall since 2002 and 2008 respectively. These supplements collect data on the volunteering, voting, and civic activities of adults age 16 and older for volunteering and 18 and older for the civic supplement.
How volunteers are defined in the CPS
Volunteers are defined as persons who performed unpaid volunteer activities at any point during the 12-month period, from September 1 of the prior year through the survey week in September of the survey year. The count of volunteers includes only persons who volunteered through or for an organization – the figures do not include persons who volunteered in a more informal manner.
Did you catch that last part? The figures do not include persons who volunteered in a more informal manner. Those surveyed are explicitly instructed, “We only want you to include volunteer activities that you did through or for an organization.” Furthermore, CNCS defines regular volunteers as individuals who served 100 hours or more at one or more organizations during the previous year surveyed. Also noteworthy is how activities are described. Activities are the specific tasks the volunteer did for an organization. Examples provided include tutoring, fundraising, and serving food. For the purposes of providing more detailed information, the category “Any other type of activity/specify,” was not included in the list of the main volunteer activities.
The impact of survey design
It’s easy to imagine how these definitions might fail to capture the full extent of contributions Hawai‘i residents make to their neighbors and communities. And these shortcomings shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over a decade ago, the Hawai‘i director of the state office of the Points of Light Foundation and Volunteer Center National Network shared how the survey itself might artificially depress actual volunteerism rates:
“It’s a culturally cold study,” said Judith Cantil, assistant vice president of community building for the Aloha United Way. Cantil said the study asks people whether they “volunteer,” which people in Hawai‘i do not do: Instead, they do more “neighboring” or “kōkua.”
“It’s not a culturally appropriate term as a starting point,” said Cantil.
“It’s so different here. Culturally, it’s different. It’s much more person to person,” Cantil said. Rather than actually walking into a soup kitchen, residents in Hawai‘i might ask a senior citizen neighbor if they can pick up some groceries for them, she said. [Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 9, 2007]
Championing a rising tide of volunteer service
Despite these problems with the data collection process, Hawaii’s low ranking clearly demonstrates a need for a renewed commitment to growing volunteer service in our island state. Kudos to Kanu Hawai‘i for championing this cause and recognizing the important role volunteerism can play in fostering connected and healthy communities.
One of the stated objectives of its campaign is to, “collect and report back on a shared set of metrics that capture our collective impact. We collaboratively developed this set of “metrics that matter” through planning sessions with participating businesses, nonprofits and community groups. We hope these metrics can better inform future connections and help to grow and measure participation of volunteerism in Hawai‘i.” We hope so, too, and eagerly await hearing the results of this campaign.
In the meantime, you can track the Hawai‘i campaign on social media via the #VolunteerWeekHawaii hashtag, and this year’s National Volunteer Week campaign via #ivolunteer and #NVW.