We’re willing to give back by sacrificing our most valuable commodity — time. Much of our volunteer work comes from a desire to get outside to build trails, clean shorelines and participate in the natural world.
Puget Sound people have always been hip to turning commodities into the most valuable currency of the day. Early on, it was timber, furs, fish and Yukon gold, all traded for cash. But today’s favored currency is more precious, and fleeting, than all those combined: time.
Today, our little place — the last stop on the edge of an old world — is all about shrinking the new one. In the land of fast jets, digital communications and one-hour delivery, the Prime (Shipping) Directive is clear: Time is today’s gold, and thou shalt not waste it.
So it might come as a surprise that many of us guard our time so vigilantly only to turn around and give it away. That’s correct, fellow citizens: In the Seattle metro area’s vaunted individualistic, minute-hoarding, work-obsessed, cut-thy-brother-off-in-that-freeway-merge culture, tens of thousands of us habitually give time back every day.
We volunteer. Big time.
The Seattle region (in a study area that includes Bellevue, Tacoma and environs) has long ranked in the top five metro areas in the country in volunteer time given, measured by bodies and hours. In the most recent rankings, in 2014, Seattle was seventh, but the region has recently ranked as high as fourth. The numbers might raise some eyebrows:
More than 32 percent of Seattle-area residents did volunteer work in 2014. That’s 837,200 helpful individuals, according to a survey by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Those people gave 25.7 volunteer hours per capita, for a total of nearly 122 million hours of service, with an estimated worth of $1.7 billion.
Statewide numbers are similarly impressive. Washington ranks 11th among the 50 states, with 1.61 million volunteers working 28.2 hours per capita, providing 155 million hours of service worth $3.6 billion. (For comparison’s sake, that’s more than three-fourths of a new Evergreen Point floating bridge.)
The Seattle-area volunteer rate is about 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Our top five volunteer activities are, in order: fundraising, collecting and distributing food, tutoring or teaching, general labor and youth mentoring. Statewide statistics largely mirror that result.
Bragging rights? Some. The Portland metro area ranked sixth in volunteers per resident in the same survey; Los Angeles lagged in 45th place; New York City was 49th.
All of us trail the perennial champion: The state of Utah (with a 46 percent overall volunteer rate) and the happy little Wasatch Front town of Salt Lake City (37.5 percent). Volunteer coordinators point to an obvious influence: Traditionally, at least, the bulk of volunteer work has been facilitated by religious organizations, and in Utah, the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is profound. In Salt Lake City, 54.5 percent of volunteer work was church-based in the 2014 survey; 64.5 percent in Utah revolved around the church.
That compares with 23 percent in Seattle, which raises obvious questions about the Emerald City’s consistently high volunteer rankings: Where does the Puget Sound region, a place known for its relative un-churchiness, at least in terms of organized religion, make up the difference?
The statistics say we spend more time volunteering in education, sports and the arts, and other amorphous categories such as “civic” and “other.” And local volunteer coordinators suspect they know what fills a large portion of that nonspecific void: the natural world, tended to by numerous robust, local nonprofit organizations that promote environmental stewardship and/or recreation.
Giving back to the planet
Puget Sound people seem willing to “give back” not just to their society and community, but to the planet from which they’ve been extracting natural resources throughout their lives.
“It’s sort of ‘the rent you pay on Earth,’ ” says Liahann Bannerman, director of volunteer engagement for United Way of King County, who describes the local volunteer ethic as being perhaps more “spiritual,” in that sense, than religious.
The evidence, in terms of volunteer numbers at local groups working to protect Puget Sound itself, clean and clear salmon streams and regularly perform arduous tasks such as trail-building and maintenance, is clear. Washington Trails Association work crews lead the nation in volunteer hours for that activity. The group in 2015 logged 140,000 hours of volunteer trail work across the state, with some 4,400 individual volunteers.
WTA work-party programs have increased by about 20 percent per year throughout this decade. Following a trend seen in some other environmental groups, the organization has increasingly endeavored to inspire volunteerism more among inner-city groups, hoping to bring exposure to the great outdoors to a more diverse range of constituents, both in terms of ethnicity and age. About a quarter of WTA workers today are minors.
Techies ‘hungry’ to get outside
Trail work, much of it in the region’s famed forests and alpine areas, has proved popular even among demographic groups where schlepping gravel and swinging a Pulaski tool would seem unlikely activities. Among those is the proverbial — and stereotypical — urban-oriented, work-obsessed, young tech professional.
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Many of those people seem to want to get outside and work, on something not confined to an LED screen, even more than the average person, says Rebecca Lavigne, WTA’s trail program director.
Young coders and engineers, she says, are “hungry” to get outside and build stuff. And “In a WTA work party, it’s so tangible. At the end of the day, you can look at what you’ve achieved.”
The same newcomers are coming around to the regional volunteer ethic in other ways less noticeable, the United Way’s Bannerman believes.
The tens of thousands of local techie newcomers experience social dynamics similar to any other immigrant group, she says. They begin to socialize around work, largely, or subsets of job categories, or even ethnicity within their trade. After a year or two, once group members decide the Seattle area is not just a career stop but potentially home, a sort of community critical mass is achieved.
“I see more and more of those transplant groups coming together, saying, ‘We really do want to learn something about our community,’ ” Bannerman says. “We know that volunteering is a way that we can get them engaged.”
Those people, she notes, are recruited by United Way efforts such as an Emerging Leader Program, which seeks to not only secure volunteers but to build an infrastructure that sustains local volunteer successes, and spreads the benefits more broadly. The same process is playing out in the Seattle area’s growing numbers of organized groups of immigrants from other nations, Bannerman says.
Drawing in families, newcomers
Bannerman and her counterparts, acknowledging that time is today’s most challenging volunteer roadblock, say strategies to combat people’s time-crunch anxieties are constantly shifting. But volunteer coordinators continue to find creative solutions. A generation ago, they turned competition with family time from a perceived problem into a solution by designing more volunteer work for parents and children together.
Similarly, younger, urban newcomers, many extremely protective of their limited social time, are now urged to spend some of it engaging in group-oriented volunteer work that doesn’t feel separate from hanging out with friends. Rather than competing with social time, the two become mixed, to the benefit of both.
Local people who are less than thrilled with the region’s influx of techies shouldn’t be so quick to judge their supposed self-centeredness, local volunteer officials say. Some of their employers are extremely generous with time excused for community service. At least one of them, Microsoft, goes a step beyond, offering $25 per hour worked to organizations in which employees serve as volunteers.
And while large modern employers such as Amazon have a reputation for being less charity-focused — in a traditional, corporate sense — than longer-standing companies, many of their individual employees bring unique job skills, shaped by their work ethic, to the volunteer world.
Volunteering as a way of life
Maggie McDowell, 45, a Seattle resident for 22 years and an Amazon.com product manager for five, is a lifelong volunteer. She started in high school, working in a sea-turtle program for Greenpeace in Florida. She spent time in her college years washing oil-drenched pelicans with soap. Later, work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation impressed upon her just how “blessed” she was — and most of the rest of us also are, if we slow down and think about it.
“We didn’t do anything to earn being born here, or having a fantastic education,” McDowell says. “We have an obligation to do something with this. I think about that, whether it’s time, or money, and how different the world would be if everyone did it.”
Her latest, and continuing, passion is animal rescue, a popular focus of volunteer time in the Seattle area. She works extensively with Seattle Animal Shelter to rescue neglected pets and place them in stable homes. Many people do similar work, but McDowell has taken her volunteerism a step further. She often finds herself asking, in a fashion not inconsistent with her professional work: How can we do this better than anyone else?
Her solution has been to travel around the country, visiting “as many sanctuaries and rescue facilities as I can,” sharing knowledge of solutions here and picking up ideas for animal-saving innovation elsewhere. Many of the groups she visits are fledgling nonprofits, run by people who know nothing about nonprofits, she says. Shared knowledge, preventing constant reinvention of the charitable wheel, is golden.
McDowell spends about 20 hours a week on volunteer work, balancing it with a hectic schedule at Amazon, parenting a 10-year-old daughter and, of course, tending to several rescued dogs at her own place. That often leaves her up until 2 a.m. working a project, she says. But it’s worth it.
“It makes me more balanced,” she says. And just as important, she and other local volunteers say, is establishing a legacy of community-service work. Time spent volunteering is valuable. Time spent volunteering with children might prove exponentially so.
McDowell says it’s important to her as a parent to instill her own sense of community obligation in her daughter.
By design, “Volunteerism is part of her DNA,” she says.