Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Why Arts Organizations Should Attend to Government Statistics about Volunteering

In last month's post for this series, I blogged about a speech given by Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I'm not stalking the President's chief economic aide, I assure you, yet I did observe that in June he also addressed the Corporation for National and Community Service's (CNCS) town hall at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Washington, DC.

On that occasion, Krueger commended a research report issued by CNCS and titled Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment: Does Volunteering Increase Odds of Finding a Job for the Out of Work? The subtitle gives the game away---the answer, would you believe, is yes---but equally conspicuous is the degree of methodological rigor and the theoretical spadework the authors bring to a study correlating volunteerism with employment outcomes.

As arts researchers know, the frequent inability to defend causal arguments about the arts' impact has created a surfeit of research literature that relies on statements such as "is associated with" or "is highly correlated with" to describe the arts' proper relationship to the outcome studied. As do the very best of those publications, the CNCS paper shows how to achieve cautious but crystalline reporting of findings from a standard regression analysis: the paper does not overstate its conclusions, but neither does it conceal the sophisticated modeling techniques, the formidable tests for validity, and the carefully weighed materials used to build a hypothesis.

As Krueger said at the CNCS town hall, in a statement that was met with applause: "I asked my staff to review this paper before I agreed to come speak today. I'm pleased to tell you it passed muster."

Apart from the study's exemplary methods and framing, the findings themselves merit attention from arts organizations and cultural policy-makers. There are two, maybe three big numbers: by analyzing data from a sample exceeding 70,500 people (ages 16 and older), researchers found that volunteering was associated with a 27 percent higher odds of employment; this finding was statistically significant at the 99.9 percent confidence level.

The link between volunteering and finding employment appeared strongest among lower-educated people and those living in rural areas. As the authors write, "volunteering may assist in 'leveling the playing field' for these individuals, who typically have a more difficult time finding employment, especially during a recession."

Why should arts organizations care? On its website, CNCS suggests that as a result of this knowledge, nonprofits may want to "target those who have the most to gain by volunteering---out-of-work individuals, particularly people without a high school degree or people living in rural areas. Volunteer recruitment may then have two purposeful outcomes: improvements to communities and better employment outcomes for community members." CNCS points to volunteer recruitment and management resources available at NationalService.gov/Build-Your-Capacity.

A more compelling reason is the authors' hypothesis---strengthened if not proven by the findings--that "the mechanisms by which volunteering could lead to an increase in the likelihood of finding employment for those out of work include an increase in social capital and human capital. Those increases could make individuals more marketable to, or productive for, employers and increase their odds of finding work. Alternatively, some workers may see volunteering as a possible entry route into an organization where they would like to work."

If volunteerism is indeed a pathway to employment, then arts organizations, venues, and activities could be hotbeds for this crucial transition. A few years ago, the NEA's research team queried federal data on volunteer rates and reported that 1.6 million people in the U.S. volunteer for arts and cultural organizations, and 7.1. million volunteer artistic services for non-arts/cultural groups.

On the whole, volunteers for arts and cultural organizations were found to be better educated than volunteers for all other kinds of organizations, and they generally were more giving of their time than other volunteers. Compared with volunteers as a whole, moreover, arts volunteers relied on connections (with friends, family, or co-workers) as their entry point to volunteering---further testimony to the social capital they represent. On the other hand, the NEA research also found that arts volunteers include within their ranks a high percentage of people outside the labor force (e.g., not looking for work), and that arts volunteers tend to be older than volunteers for most other types of organizations.

That said, we should remember that not all arts volunteers serve an arts/cultural organization, and therefore may not have been captured by the survey used for the NEA's analysis. What if you were  volunteering for a specific arts event---a festival, for example? The NEA's research on outdoor arts festivals found that 61 percent of festivals have year-round volunteers and 77 percent have seasonal volunteers. In addition, 70 percent of festivals captured in the NEA survey were run by only five (or fewer) full-time equivalent staff members---suggesting their heavy reliance on volunteer armies.

It's just possible that when you combine volunteers for arts organizations, volunteers for arts events, and volunteers of artistic goods or services to non-arts organizations or events, you're talking about a heavy share of job aspirants who are positioning themselves for employment---whether in the arts or in another sector entirely.

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