Where Are The Helpers?

Are rural areas better at volunteering? When does volunteerism peak? Is there a correlation between bystander CPR rates and informal volunteering?

Where Are The Helpers?
Main Street in Bozeman, MT

A few weeks prior to my departure for the conference in Montana, I saw a tweet from Senator John Tester that caught my eye

The USA Facts site linked provides great data on each state on a core measurement of civic engagement, namely the informal volunteer rate. So on a whim, I decided to pair that with data from the 2022 CARES report that lists 19 states' bystander CPR rates.

Self-made map of data from Bystander CPR Rates (CARES 2022 Report) and Informal Volunteer Rate (USA Facts) by 19 states with available data, sorted by that informal volunteer rate. National Median- 38.80% bystander CPR rate, 53.80% informal volunteer rate

I was taught to get the most accurate picture of data, to use the median when doing calculations, so I took the median values and simply put them next to one another. What I found was quite interesting- 14/19 of those states were above them median rate of informal volunteer rates nationwide, and 9 of those were also above the median rate for bystander CPR. Only 2 states had bystander CPR rates above the median, but were below the median volunteer rate. Of all 19, only 3 states were beyond 2 percentage points away on that bystander CPR median. This had to mean something, right?

Are the helpers all rural?

Looking at the list, I thought I had the answer. Montana, Nebraska, Vermont, Maine, Alaska - all had impressively high bystander CPR and high informal volunteer rates. They also, surprisingly, are some of our most sparsely populated states. Are big cities just doomed to have fewer volunteers? Are rural areas just inherently better?

Unfortunately for any "team rural" people out there, no, and a 2019 Bloomberg article put it best.

Sometimes people who do work that helps the community don’t count what they’re doing as volunteer work.[1]

The rural areas may simply have more opportunity to flex their volunteer muscles. After all, more than half of all EMS agencies in rural areas are volunteer, vs just 14% in more urban areas.[2] A critique by the Rural Reconciliation project put it bluntly-

...(T)he rural volunteering advantage is “not because rural places are inherently more civil, but because small places, by nature, have different levels of endowments to support volunteerism and activiate these community resources in different ways.”[3]

So what does rural data say? The University of Nebraska polled rural communities to figure out their essential characteristics, and noted this about the age of volunteers.

When comparing age groups, persons between the ages of 30 and 39 are the group most likely to spend time volunteering. Over 4 in 10 persons in their 30s spend time volunteering at least a few times per month, compared to approximately one-third of persons between the ages of 19 and 29 and persons age 50 to 64. [4]

In that same study, they polled attitudes on volunteering, and only about a third of respondents agreed that today's youth were being adequately prepared to volunteer.

Where are the helpers going?

Back in the Bloomberg article, Robert Grimm of the Do Good Institute also noted the rural/urban divide when it came to overall volunteer rate, but pointed out that in these rural areas, declines are happening quicker than their urban counterparts.[5] With it, even the rural areas are starting to see change.

“There’s a phrase that goes, ‘Volunteering is the glue that keeps community working,” says Grimm. “When fewer people engage with each other, that’s where you’re going to have greater level of social isolation and lower levels of trust in each other.”[6]

The article notes peak volunteerism peaks around 35 and 54, and suggests that homeownership, the nomadic life of younger generations, socioeconomic factors, declining church attendance, and even the age at which families are started may be playing into an overall decline in both rural and urban volunteering.

You can easily add social isolation from the internet into that mix, and our current political polarization.

But there were notes of optimism, namely that when something happens suddenly, volunteers are able to mobilize en masse quickly to help. Think natural disasters, but also social movements and protests.[7] Social media can be both a divider, but in the right cases can motivate others to act.

What's holding the helpers back?

All these studies agree on one central thing - inspiring people to either formally or informally volunteer is essential. The Stanford Center on Longevity suggested three common barriers to volunteering that I think are worth keeping in mind.[8]

  1. “I don’t have enough time and volunteer schedules are too inflexible”
  2. “I don’t have enough information and most volunteer roles aren’t interesting”
  3. “No one asked me to”

In their research, they found if you maximize flexibility, connect people with richer information as to why the role matters, and (critically) ASK for help, you're addressing the common complaints that keep people from helping their communities.

We started this article with a basic comparison of informal volunteering and bystander CPR rates, and while there is some correlation, it's obviously a bit more nuanced when looking at their relationship to one another. Simply put, the helpers are everywhere, but common barriers like time continue to impact both. The more we can do to make training convenient, to spread the message of the importance of bystander CPR, and to build our own relatability within our communities, the better! That way, we can hopefully see positive movement in the number of bystanders receiving CPR AND those who informally help their community.


  1. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-12/america-has-a-post-9-11-volunteerism-slump ↩︎

  2. https://kffhealthnews.org/news/article/rural-ambulance-services-are-in-jeopardy-as-volunteers-age-and-expenses-mount/ ↩︎

  3. https://www.ruralreconcile.org/ruralreview/volunteeringdivide ↩︎

  4. https://cap.unl.edu/rural/rural-poll-community-size-age-impact-volunteerism-nebraska ↩︎

  5. see bloomberg.com above ↩︎

  6. Ibid. ↩︎

  7. https://www.wsj.com/articles/social-media-helps-spur-global-protests-over-george-floyds-death-11591880851 ↩︎

  8. https://longevity.stanford.edu/three-reasons-why-people-dont-volunteer-and-what-can-be-done-about-it/ ↩︎