Volunteer workSomething about the recovery is prodding more full-time workers to volunteer their time outside of work.

Data released last week chart a significant uptick in the number of American adults who volunteered last year for a religious, educational or other nonprofit organization.

And the biggest increase came from those who theoretically had the least free time to give.

According to the recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 64 million Americans volunteered time to an organization last year. It was a sharp increase from the prerecession number of 60.8 million.

The unusual aspect of the 2011 report was that biggest gain in volunteers in 2011 was among the full-time employed. That was a change from the previous three years when volunteer numbers had risen markedly among part-timers and the jobless.

Christopher Wray is one of them. When he’s not working on Wednesday afternoons at Trader Joe’s in Leawood, Kan., he volunteers three hours a week at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, helping new patients and families get familiar with the place.

“We’re a very people-oriented company at Trader Joe’s, and this goes hand-in-hand,” Wray said of his volunteer time. “Plus, I’ve worked with children in the past. I taught English in China. … This is a good way to help.”

Sylvia Hernandez, assistant director of volunteer and guest services at the hospital, said the institution “actually is seeing a steady across-the-board increase in folks who are applying to volunteer. We’re getting five to eight volunteer applications a night.”

Applications from full-time workers are appreciated, especially those who will fill needed evening and weekend spots, she said.

According to the annual “Volunteering in the United States” report, the overall percentage of adults who volunteered time to churches, schools and nonprofits edged only slightly higher, from 26.2 percent to 26.8 percent over the last five years.

The percentage of full-time workers who volunteered last year, 29.6 percent, exceeded the overall volunteer rate. Part-time workers still boasted the highest volunteer participation rate, though, at 33.3 percent.

In raw numbers, there were 3.4 million more volunteers in 2011 than 2007. The number grew by nearly 1.5 million between 2010 and 2011, mostly because of time given by full-time workers.

Some of that growth may be due to the rise of corporate-sponsored employee volunteer programs. Sometimes, that kind of “volunteering” is paid.

At Ad Astra Information Systems in Overland Park, Kan., the company this month sponsored a week-long employee mission trip to Guatemala in connection with Heart to Heart International. The company paid some of the expenses as well as giving 10 employees paid time off to go.

“I’m glad to be able to work at a company that takes philanthropy as seriously as we do,” one worker wrote on a confidential Ad Astra employee survey.

Paid or not, people are volunteering, and the largest volunteer group is the 35- to 54-year-olds — the group most likely to be employed. Often they’re also juggling family responsibilities with either children or aging parents.

“I volunteer at Heartland SPCA,” said Wendy Erickson of the no-kill animal shelter in Merriam, Kan., “and I’m amazed at the incredible amount of volunteering by people who bring their families.”

Erickson put her finger on a possible reason why volunteering is up: “People just feel so much better about themselves. It takes you out of the ‘me’ zone when you give to others.”

The new report also may reflect the improved job market. Compared with 2010, there was a drop in the number of unemployed people who volunteered. That change goes hand in hand with the decline of nearly 1.3 million jobless people in 2011.

As in past years, the mother lode of volunteering in terms of hours spent was found in the 65-and-older group. People that age, generally retired, gave a median of 96 volunteer hours over the year, compared with the overall median of 51 hours — or about an hour a week.

The smallest volunteer commitments came from young adults in their early 20s, a median of 36 hours for the year.

The report found that more than two-thirds of people who volunteered last year spent their time with just one organization. About one in five volunteered for two.

After religious organizations and schools, the next largest recipients of volunteer time were social or community service organizations.

The survey indicated that about four in 10 volunteers approached their recipient organizations on their own rather than being asked to help.

Source: MCT Information Services