February 04, 2009

Beyond Bowling Alone

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Years ago Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University, wrote Bowling Alone, a book that pointed out declining participation rates in bowling leagues and other social phenomena as a harbinger of clip_image002declining civic engagement and volunteering.

Many years before that book appeared, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in the early 1800s and pointed out in his book, Democracy in America that America is a “nation of joiners.” He was amazed at the number of voluntary associations we had in which we provided services for each other.

In noting an apparent decline in volunteering behavior, the Putnam book created concern since volunteering is a very important mechanism for creating positive social change; it is how we solve our most intractable problems. The concern is that if Americans are less engaged in the public sphere, our society will suffer.

Over the last couple of decades we have transferred some former government services to the nonprofit sector, which depends on volunteers and philanthropy. Many people have moved into gated communities and segregated ourselves into enclaves based on social class. Thus if fewer of us are giving our money and time to community issues, our communities will no longer be able to thrive or even to solve the most basic problems when they occur. Declines in donations are likely to increase as the economy struggles, too.

I’ve been thinking about these issues in recent days as our new president called for each of us to participate in solving the country’s woes. The Obama campaign’s success lay in its organizing capacity, technological savvy, quick communication, and mobilization of tremendous numbers of people, which broke new ground for political campaigns. More people than we’ve seen in a long time have been involved in political action in a very public way.

The research on volunteering shows varying patterns of volunteering, yet the definition rests on giving time to formal nonprofit organizations. This is problematic enough considering cultural variations and definitions of what constitutes “volunteering.” For example, is helping a neighbor with groceries volunteering?

Many people give time and energy to help and socialize with those beyond their own family in a variety of ways including bowling in a community league, serving meals at the local shelter, giving out blankets for the Red Cross, and helping out at the church or temple or mosque bake sale. As you can see from the graph below, the volunteer rate is actually higher in the 2000s than it was in the two benchmark years before.


Graph from the National and Community Service's Volunteering in America: 2007 State trends and rankings in civic life

The organization Move On is one recent example of a new kind of social involvement; although clicking through sites online is not necessarily equivalent to physical participation when it comes to civic engagement. (Neither is “shopping” for the cause in my opinion.) However, online “mobilizers” such as Move On bring together people in very efficient ways.

These days, “virtual” volunteering often fosters the communication and mobilization that are essential for the formation and success of social movements. Because of the speed and efficiency of technological communication, new organizations can be formed quickly.

In the early 1900s, an amazing number of nonprofit organizations were founded to help address issues that our country was facing. Nonprofits organizations exist to provide services when government and private for-profit organizations won’t or can’t – their services may be available to all or to select clip_image006groups who are most in need of those services. The American Red Cross was congressionally chartered in 1900, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909, the Boy Scouts of America and the Urban League in 1910, the Girl Scouts of America in 1912.

As the Obama Presidency begins, I wonder if we won’t see another spurt of organizational generation in which new (maybe virtual) nonprofits will emerge as we address our problems through this newer form of organizing – one that may not be accurately captured by the research on volunteering. We might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t involved in our communities. Civic engagement looks different today than it might have just a few years ago.

How much civic engagement do you see in your own circle of friends and in your community? Are you a member of any groups on Facebook that get people together in non-virtual ways to do service activities?


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Great post, appreciate the subject.

I'm heading up a group in Arlington County, right outside of DC, called Community Volunteer Network (CVN). We're under the auspices of the County, but are volunteer led. The main idea is to organize 20-30 somethings in Arlington to socially connect and volunteer together in a variety of issue areas. A lot of the connections we make are via the Internet, but i do think it has to be a means to an end, in large part--the end being getting folks interacting in person. I think that isn't always the case with Internet initiatives, but i think it's one of the best utilities for the Internet in terms of civic engagement.

Feel free to check out our County website, www.arlingtonva.us/cvn or to search for "Community Volunteer Network" on Facebook to find our page there (we generally use the County page to get folks signed up for volunteer events and the Facebook page for social events). We've had over 1000 volunteers over the five year life of the program, and have an average of 25-30 at our monthly happy hours, and fill up to capacity basically every month for the handful of monthly volunteer events we do (each of which have a capacity of anywhere from 10 to 60 or so on the higher end).

We are actually looking at the possibility of getting a short-term book discussion going via our group on one of Putnam's more recent books, Better Together--should be neat. My hope as the Chair of CVN is to hit home the point with our volunteers that there is so, so much good that can be done when an interested group of individuals gather together and aim to help their community for the better--particularly when they think innovatively about ways a sizable group of people can help a given community (just as Better Together demonstrates is possible on so many fronts).

All that said, i think there are a number of ways we may very well need new institutions to foster comunity, just as religious insititutions played this role in many ways in the past. Putnam's 2007 paper on the challenges of diversity highlights this in many ways too, from my standpoint (the paper is well worth read, but as a taste, here's an article on that paper he wrote: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/08/05/news/diversity.php).

Civic Engagement is different than it was a generation ago because of economic status or time constraints. People today might not be as involved in their community as they once were centuries ago. Sometimes it takes time to realize what one could do in their community. Simply by recycling and being a good neighbor we are satisfying civic engagement.

Very well done Sally Raskoff everything you said was definitely valid especially towards the end, "We might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t involved in our communities"(Sally Raskoff).

It seems like a lot of people want to down play this generation because of the internet and other technologies. Really I believe it gives people more accesses and knowledge for other activities and volunteer opportunities than ever before.

What also is making kids and particularly high school students get more involved is the competitiveness to get into college. Any type of volunteering they can do to make there college resumes and personal statements look better they will do. Also through organization and also your personal church provide volunteer hours that might be required or you just do.

I agree 100% that "We might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t involved in our communities" (Sally Raskoff).

Just by reading the title, this article really stood out. Many people back then have the time, energy, and knowledge on how to serve their community just by volunteering. An act as simple as recycling cans, or picking up trash at the local park is volunteering.

Due to the mass media, volunteering can now be done online like through sites on Facebook. By simply "liking" a page on Facebook, a penny or so can be donated to help a cause. I believe that because technology has grown than it was a few generations ago individuals have become too lazy or don't know how to get involved to help the world.

But technology is the reason why people are getting more involved in their communities. Without the knowledge individuals gain through the Internet some causes would not even even be known. Many other individuals are not active in their community because they don't have the time to help out.

I completely agree with the quote towards the end of the article. Time is a key factor in why people don't volunteer. Like Raskoff has compared it to, if people had the time many people would still be active in leagues.

I agree with Sally Raskoff when she says "we might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn't mean we aren't involved in our communities." In today's society I believe there are many more people that vonlunteer within their community than there were a couple years ago. My high school, along with most other high schools, require a certain number of community service hours in order to graduate. That also increases the involvement within a community. Personally, I have volunteered at a hospital and many of my friends have also volunteered at local shelters, libraries, and schools. However, I think even the smallest gesture contributes to our society such as throwing your trash away rather than littering or putting your change inside a tip jar. We all help each other one way or another.

I, also along with my fellow classmates. agree with Sally Raskoff. We might not be in bowling leagues, but many of us, including myself, are still involved in our communities. I can name a few ways on how civic engagement is different compared to the previous generation. Nowadays, we have high schools and universities that are requiring and encouraging their students to volunteer within their communities. My high school required at least 100 hours of volunteer services to actually be eligible for graduation. Also, many future employers are looking to see that their future employees have some volunteer background. Therefore, I believe that many people, more so young adults, are getting involved and volunteering in their local communities. I personally have volunteered and still am currently volunteering at my community hospital. I absolutely love helping people and lending them a helping hand, free of charge. Furthermore, we might not be joining bowling leagues, but we are still getting involved in our communities.

I found this article very interesting. Because I've also noticed how less and less people are volunteering to make out world a better place. Majority of everyone is worried about money and less about our society and how we're going to keep money flowing in. People need to realize there will not be any money if we keep corrupting our world. I also noticed in my inner circle they are not doing any volunteer work either. But I volunteer when I can by helping out my church and keeping our childrens church alive. Also people are not wanting to help non profit organizations becasue they are not getting paid so they rather spend their time working for money. I am currently trying to become a volunteer at a hospital to help people because thats one thing I enjoy doing.

In today's day and age, it is true that we are not bowling in leagues like we were in past decades. However, that doesn't mean that we aren't getting involved as much. With advanced technology and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, issues and volunteer opportunities are better advertised. Many celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber interact through Twitter and fans write to them everyday asking to support their causes. Those fans who actually get a response from the celebrities have a higher chance of their charity/cause getting support. Some of the greatest support that charities have received has been in this era. When natural disasters hit such as Hurricane Katrina and the huge earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, people from all around the world joined in an effort to help. Ten or twenty years ago, when technology didn't play as big a role as it does today, volunteering wasn't as likely. I have participated in community activities such as the AIDS walk, donated clothes and shoes to less fortunate children, and helped to feed the hungry during the holiday season, and I'm sure my fellow citizens are doing the same.

I agree, we should have more volunteering amongst our society. I believe we are all so money hungry, that volunteering is not the first option that most consider.

In my community, I do not really see alot of volunteering services, there should be a change in that.

Including myself, I need to and want to start volunteering more!

I see a lot of engagment from my friends and the circle of my community. Most times my friends and I will donate blood to the Red Cross whenever we have a chance to. Also, the people in my community donate food out of their own pocket to serve for the poor. I am a member of a group on Facebook for my college. In this group, students post about books, clubs and classes and some even offer help with classes. Nobody profits much, we're all just there to communicate and help each other out.

I don't see much civic engagement in my own circle of friends past food drives and helping who you should during the holidays, but there are many different alternatives now to engaging socially for a greater good, including sites like change.org which creates and spreads petitions for various causes that make a faster approach to making a change, since you can email infinitely many people and many people are more open to clicking a few times than writing their information at a grocery store. I can not say if it is better than actually going out to do something, because you are not actually getting to see who you are helping past a possible picture you may get to see. It is positive that more people are willing to help virtually, but community service is still a physical activity that someone has to be willing to do otherwise we are just basically creating jobs rather than unifying or strengthening our communities.

In my circle of friends there is very little civic engagement. Many of my friends including myself are not part of clubs or community services. What I do help out and as I like to call my permanent job is volunteering at church. It’s something I will always do. In my community there some volunteering but they are not well known. In a way it is like we are bowling alone. If more people would try to involve our entire community it would be different. I am not part of any Facebook groups. I’m not much a of a Facebook type girl. I prefer to communicate in person. I believe it is not just a politician problem but everyone as a community should be more involved.

I agree with Sally, bowling leagues may be on decline, but our involvement in volunteer activities still continues. This simply seems to be from a changing environment, from bowling leagues to new forms of community involvement.

I also agree with Luz about the, "bowling alone" idea. Volunteer opportunities may seem to be on decline, but instead there is actually more opening up in the form of individual activities.

"We might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t involved in our communities"(Sally Raskoff ) I agree with Sally about not being in bowling leagues, but i disagree about people being involved in their communities. In my community the only involvement there is are high school students, a few months ago before i graduated in order to receive a diploma you needed to complete a service learning project, we had to devote a day to go to a convalescent home and interact with the elderly, it was a nice thing to do but it wasn't something students would do on their own. Many generations ago people had a "we are in this together" perspective, for instance the Civil Rights Movement, Women's Movement, and Revolutions were all executed in a time where people were more selfless, but now our own society has forced us to compete against each other, wether it be for college acceptance, job positions and so forth. It's what looks better on your resume rather than taking part in your community because you care to see others succeed. We have changed, modern America is distinct from years ago and because of that we have had to adapt, I honestly believe it's a variety of variables forcing our current society to be individualistic.

I am involved in a organization called Hope Worldwide. If I am not able to do hands on volunteer work, then I will try to donate the lmoney that I have.
Even though the statictics have shown that more people in the year of 2000s then people in teh 70s, I believe that more people in this country is less civic. There are many that volunteer when they have the time or they dedicate their weekends to volunteer in a organization, but there is going to be a decline in the next generation. More children and even adults have become more busy, but also lazy.
This could be harsh, but in my opinion, more and more adults have more self centered and focus on their own needs and wants rather thinking about other people. I am a college student, and my schedule could be really busy, and that I dont have time to volunteer, but when I do have free time, I do not really think about helpig out any time, because I would like my own free time.
Lastly, our economy has been decreasing, and there is also a decrease of Adults donating their money, and I know that I have done the same thing.

Civic engagement is way different than it was a generation ago because of all the new ways and resources we have now. Before the only way of volunteering was by going out and actually doing it. Now we can donate money to a group or foundation by just going online. Or a more simple way of just going to the store and donating for the children hospital or signing a petition. I do agree with "we might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn't mean we aren't involved in our communities" because I believe more people are actually getting involved because of the mass media and they are more aware of whats going on in there communities and have ways to help out even if its just by going online and donating a couple of dollars.

To Professor Pih,
I feel people have become less involved within communities. Statistic show that we are actually volunteering more now then our previous generations. We are volunteering more now on a less social scale. We donate money or give our support electronically versus being there physically. As individuals we need to make a greater effort and make our presence known. Nowadays we feel being online and messaging people is part of being social but we are mistaken, it just helps distance ourselves from the real world.

I think the reason people seem more involved in their communities in this generation is because of the media coverage of available volunteer organizations and how they are helping people in need. I think this motivates people to try to make a bigger change other than just being in bowling leagues. The fact that now we can go online and just donate money to a cause increases the number of people who are willing to help because it fits in with anyones schedule.One way that my family helps a good cause is by donating money to the St. Jude Children's Hospital every month. It is really simple for anyone to do because they just send you a letter every month and you just write out a check and mail it in. I believe that these resources are the reasons that there is an increased number of volunteers in this decade.

Civic engagement definitely isn't what it use to be a generation ago which in some ways is unfortunate.Possibly due to technology now making it so convenient to not leave your computer screen for almost any task that needs to be done. I do agree that we are more involved today even though we aren't joining as many bowling leagues and it is nice to see how it has improved from before the year 2000 but we aren't really interacting with each other which i feel lacks the whole coming together social point. We are individually isolated yet at the same time coming together in support of something. It seems odd to me and i'd be nice to see more of actually physically coming together because when that occurs you are more face to face with the concern and you get to speak directly to others about it and get their opinions. That makes the concern stronger with more emotions involved rather than just reading about something. I always try to donate and help out as much as i can especially with concerns i feel strongly about. It can also be something small, the other day, i donated a few dollars to a fraternity on campus because they were accepting donations for the well being of children which i support. So hopefully statistics will continue to grow but more in the way of a how things were before with getting more involved with the community.

Sally Raskoff in her article says "we might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn't mean we aren't involved in our communities." I agree with this statement because the Internet has brought more opportunities for people to get involved than before. Looking up charities is so easy with the Internet. It has brought vast opportunities for people to contribute with just a click of the button. Technology has brought more awareness to charities versus a century ago. Now a days popular media sites bring more attention and help foster these groups. Before it was more social and physical, now it is more isolated. Although it is more isolated, it still brings involvement into communities because technologies can aware people of the social outcries that are happening in their neighborhood.

I definitely agree with Sally Raskoff when she says that "we might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn't mean we aren't involved in our communities." Maybe our generation spends way too much time surfing the internet rather than joining the bowling league, but the fact that we're technologically more advanced than a generation ago is probably a good thing. If you think about how much time we spend on the internet, how many organizations do you think stumble onto our screens? We have hundreds of friends on Facebook where one of them are bound to mention an organization that promotes civic engagement. For example, my friend on Facebook mentioned the non-profit organization called Locks of Love where he donated his long hair to provide to children who have "long-term medical hair loss from any diagnosis." Within a week, I started to see mutual friends post about the organization and other similar ones that help communities such as these. The internet provides the most convenient way to join or help an organization, which helps promote more involvement in this generation.

Civic engagement is not very closely looked at anymore because all the other things our society is stood out for. People in the community these days would rather sit by a computer then go out and even see our society. Although many people might not be involved in the community there are those few who give it a greater look. I am in a sorority so we participate in a lot of fundraising opportunities and set goals of community service time we spend along with the money we make to donate to such amazing organizations like St. jude. The internet may also be used a great amount of everyones everyday life but the internet can also lead us to helping opportunities.

In the 21at century civic engagement has changed dramatically with the uprising of communication through the internet. The internet has introduced a new wave of civic serservices. I agree with the statement that, "We might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn't mean we aren't involved in our communities". Amongst me and my friends we volunteer at a local Youth Boxing Gym and help out couch train and advise young kids on how to defend themselves.People are heavily concerned that if Americans are less engaged with the public our society will suffer however, technological advancements also help people access information faster. There is community service websites that give out information for free.

To Professor Phi,

Civic engagement has changed over the years because our generation seems to be lees involved with the news. They can barely tell you what is going on within our communities and does that can don’t really gather up and fight like they use to years ago. I feel like an excellent example of fighting for rights will always be the civil rights movement back in the 1960, when Martin Luther King Jr. lead minorities to fight for their rights. They march they protested and they got their rights. Around the same time Cesar Chavez was also leading minority to fight for their rights. Around the same time Malcolm X was also leading minorities to fight for their rights. These are all examples of leaders bringing communities to fight for human rights and now although there isn’t as much being done or there isn’t as much recognition there are still people fighting for their communities. But as far as I am concerned the fighting for rights today and the communities coming together does not compare to the ones in the 1960s.

I do agree that civic engagement is a lot different than it was a generation ago. "We might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to". So many people like myself are so busy. That we don't have as much time as we wish we had to help out in our communities. I try my best to help with donating money to a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as much as I can. I also donate my clothes. I think nowadays people are more involved with technology. That they don't get outside as much helping out in the community. We all donate in some shape or form even if we think it's not enough. It is always some sort of help in the long run.

My friends and I use Facebook and such to make plans to get out and do things. A lot of them make groups to talk to others and Events so people will go and show up. Basically just to get a head count on about how many are showing up. A lot of people I know how a Facebook App on their phones, so they can get on it anytime that they please. So making them on the internet all the time while being out and about. Personally myself I go out and do things or encourage to go out and get away from the online media.

Non profit organizations are so important and extremely helpful to people in need.

I agree that our town needs more volunteers. I suppose we're so hungry that volunteering isn't the first thing that comes to mind. There aren't enough volunteer programs in my neighborhood; this needs to change. I need to start volunteering more, and I want to!

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