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Can volunteerism survive 5.4% unemployment?

When times are good, some nonprofits need cheering up.When times are good, some nonprofits need cheering up.
When times are good, some nonprofits need cheering up.Courtesy of The Salvation Army

One downside to strengthening job creation: Fewer Americans are working for free.

As unemployment has fallen to healthy pre-recession levels of 5.4%, so too has U.S. volunteerism plunged to its lowest point since 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2014, 25.3% of Americans turned out to volunteer, 1.5 percentage points lower than in 2009. “The volunteering rate tends to track the unemployment rate,” says Nathan Dietz, senior research associate at the Urban Institute who previously worked with government agencies on the BLS volunteering data.

The trend is bad news for organizations that rely on unpaid workers to help the needy, from Girl Scouts to volunteer fire departments. Last year the Salvation Army had 200,000 fewer volunteers holding kettles and ladling soup than it did the year before (though donations increased), and the Red Cross this year had 43% fewer volunteers than it did in 2009.

Part of the problem may be that people are busier: The largest dropoff has been among the gainfully employed, traditionally the group most likely to volunteer. While the share of unemployed people who volunteer is actually up almost 5% since 2009, the proportion of employed people who donate their time has dropped more than 7% over the same period. That’s led some to speculate that for many folks, community service might have just been a temporary gig until they got hired, particularly for young college grads

Another reason for the decline may be that many people feel like the recession and its hardships are bygone problems. When times are good, people “don’t feel the emotional tug to go volunteer,” that they do when the struggles are tangible, says Ron Busroe, national spokesman for the Salvation Army. “They forget it,” Busroe says—at least once they’ve gotten a job.

A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline ‘Volunteering vs. the recovery.’