Volunteers and paid contractors prepare meals for St. Vincent Meals on Wheels clients.
Volunteers and paid contractors prepare meals for St. Vincent Meals on Wheels clients. - 
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Tess Vigeland: You may have heard anecdotally that lots of folks who've lost their jobs turned to volunteering. That's what we do in a pinch, right? We all pull together. Well someone decided to put some numbers on the question. And it turns out that Americans are actually donating less of their time in this recession. Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports.

JEFF TYLER: Today's report comes from the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonprofit organization set-up by Congress that measures the nation's civic health. Executive director David Smith says the latest check-up shows...

DAVID Smith: The economic recession is causing a civic depression.

He says 72 percent of Americans are cutting back on time spent volunteering. Traditionally, during a slight economic downturn, Smith says, people increase their civic engagement.

But that changes when a recession is more severe.

Smith: When it reaches a certain threshold and we see unemployment rise significantly -- around 9 to 10 percent -- people actually move from engaging in their communities to pulling back.

Smith says Americans are still generous, but refocusing their efforts at a local level.

Smith: Reaching out, providing food, money and shelter to those that are in need. But much more intimate forms and informal forms of engagement.

That shift away from traditional forms of volunteering is particularly bad news for nonprofits. Charitable donations are way down and aren't expected to rebound for several years.

Sandra Miniutti is with Charity Navigator, which tracks the financial health of nonprofits.

SANDRA Miniutti: Every day we get reports of nonprofits having to lay-off staff. If people are cutting back on their volunteer efforts, charities may find themselves in a deeper hole.

She says charities had hoped that highly-skilled unemployed folks might lend specific expertise that goes beyond the normal stuffing of envelopes.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

Follow Jeff Tyler at @JeffMarketplace