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Charities fight the tide of do-gooder fatigue

Among the top 50 metro areas, Minneapolis had the highest volunteer rate at 40 percent, while Las Vegas was at the bottom with 14 percent, says a new study.

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More than a quarter of Americans spent some of their time lending a helping hand last year.

That good news kept the rate of nationwide volunteering at historically high levels: Some 61.2 million people dedicated 8.1 billion hours of service to schools; hospitals; and religious, political, and youth groups in 2006, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS).

The bad news is that the number of volunteers recently dipped significantly – by one third – from 2005.

A key reason: Nonprofits and other groups that rely on volunteers are having trouble retaining them.

"The demographics are such that we are poised to make this 30-year high get even better because the baby-boom generation is passing the traditional age of retirement," says David Eisner, CEO of CNCS. The group aims to raise the number of adult volunteers to 75 million by 2010.

"At the same time," he says, "our work is cut out for us because, nationally, the volunteer bucket is a bit leaky. We get a lot each year, but we lose a lot each year. We have to figure out how to plug those holes." Commuting time, education, and home ownership all play roles in determining how much time people are likely to spend helping organizations that need support, according to the CNCS's national study of America's top 50 cities based on census data between 2004 and 2006.

Cities' volunteering rates vary

For example, in Minneapolis, where home ownership is high and neighbors stay connected, volunteerism is nearly 41 percent.

But in Los Angeles, where people spend more time alone in their cars than talking over the back fence, volunteerism is about 22 percent.

In Portland, Ore., where almost 90 percent of residents over age 25 have completed high school, the volunteer rate is nearly 36 percent.

In Riverside, Calif., where only 75 percent of people over age 25 have a high school degree, the number of folks willing to help for free is about 21 percent.

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