National Volunteer Week: How Much Do Immigrants Volunteer?

Yesterday marked the beginning of this year’s National Volunteer Week (#NVW2016), which was first established in 1974. Volunteering has had a rich history in America, with the United States boasting one of the highest rates of volunteerism worldwide. Volunteering has long been shown to bring stability to neighborhoods and increase the level of cohesion and bonding among friends and neighbors. In communities with large immigrant populations, these are particularly desirable attributes, and places like New York City have already increased efforts to incorporate immigrants into social and political volunteerism. As newcomers to America, however, immigrants may not know where or how to find meaningful volunteering opportunities or actively participate in their communities.

In honor of National Volunteering Week, PNAE analyzed the 2013 Current Population Survey’s data on volunteering trends, with a special focus on the behavior of immigrant volunteers.[1] Our analysis produced some interesting takeaways that can help advocates and community leaders inspire more immigrants to join organizations—and, in turn, get more out of their participation. In our analysis, we control for individual characteristics like language proficiency, socioeconomic status, and length of residence in the United States, which tend to be central barriers to engagement with mainstream institutions.

In general, our findings shed new light on the common assumption that immigrants are less civically engaged than the native-born population. While this is in fact true when measuring overall rates of participation—just 15 percent of the immigrant population volunteered at all in 2013 compared to 28 percent of natives), our analysis shows that once immigrants are engaged, they actually participate slightly more than the native-born. Here are some key findings from our analysis:

Once engaged, immigrants put in more hours as volunteers than the average native-born volunteer.

We found that immigrant volunteers participate at slightly higher rates than the native-born population once they become active members of an organization. On average, immigrants spend 20 weeks a year volunteering, whereas native-born volunteers average 18 weeks per year.

In particular, volunteering rates are higher for immigrants who were prompted to join by friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

This is especially true for immigrants who were asked by relatives or co-workers to volunteer, which again points to the need for a more careful assessment of the access immigrants have to formal organizations in the United States. This finding suggests that the reason for lower overall rates of volunteer participation among the immigrant population is driven by a lack of access to or knowledge of organizational engagement. On average, among those who were asked to volunteer by relatives, foreign-born individuals volunteered 19 weeks out of the year, while natives volunteered 15 weeks. When asked to volunteer by a co-worker, immigrants averaged a participation rate of 17 weeks, while native-born volunteers averaged 10 weeks. And for those asked by friends, immigrants participated in volunteer activities 18 weeks out of the year versus 17 weeks for non-immigrants.

Immigrants typically devote their volunteer time to religious, civic, cultural/arts, public safety, and international organizations.

While immigrants devote their volunteer hours to a wide variety of causes and organizations, participation rates are particularly high among religious organizations. Of those who volunteer, 41 percent of the immigrant population was active within a religious organization, while only 32 of the native population was.

Within the volunteering world, we also find that immigrants are more active in civic, cultural/arts, public safety and international organizations when compared to their native counterparts. For example, immigrant volunteers average 23 weeks of participation for civic engagement opportunities, while their native-born counterparts average 19 weeks. For arts and cultural volunteering opportunities, immigrants average a participation rate of 24 weeks, while natives again average 19 weeks. This evidence supports the research showing that some of the best ways to integrate immigrants into the civic engagement landscape is through religious groups, multi-service organizations, and transnational associations.

As communities across America focus on the importance of volunteer work this week to improve their communities and foster greater social cohesion, civic leaders and charitable organizations should seek ways to increase immigrants’ access to volunteer opportunities. As our research shows, once engaged, immigrant volunteers dedicate themselves with the same energy and altruistic spirit that have enriched civic life throughout America for generations.


[1] Regression analyses, controlling for socio-demographic factors, was used. We take into account influence of gender, ethnic origin, and proficiency with English, education level, and presence of children under age 18 in the household. Furthermore, our models control for age and length of residency in the United States. Our findings have important implications for the future of social engagement, especially since rates of volunteering seem to be declining for the native population and increasing among foreign-born individuals.


About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…