What’s So Great about Volunteering?

By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action

Over the past several weeks I’ve been updating JVA’s internal resumes, the ones we attach to our proposals. The experience has left me amazed—and just a bit shamed—by the level of my colleagues’ volunteerism and community engagement.

Sure, I collect monthly water samples to monitor a local creek. And in the past year I’ve worked on the water group’s brochure, pulled some weeds for fire mitigation and petted a dozen or so shelter cats, all for the good of humanity. But honestly, none of this has required a ton of commitment. Reading those resumes made me think it might be time to step it up—and it made me wonder what makes some people go all in when it comes to volunteering.

So I decided to do a little online research, as well as seek inspiration from some of my colleagues. Today, I’ll share what I learned from the “official” experts.

The Science

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), about a quarter of U.S. residents volunteered at least once between September 2014 and September 2015, when the federal agency last collected data. That number—24.9 percent, more precisely—translates to 62.6 million people, and they donated 7.9 billion hours of service, worth about $184 billion. Coloradans volunteer a bit more than average, with 29.3 percent of us pitching in—ranking the state 18th in the country. Religious and educational or youth-related volunteering are the most common here, as they are nationwide.

Interestingly, though, CNCS data show that as of the 2015 report, the percentage of the U.S. population that volunteered had been slightly declining for about a decade.  

The Why

That’s one thing the numbers don’t tell us—why people donate time, or why we don’t. My internet scan did turn up a few reasons why we should, though. It’s not just the external benefits to society. We’d all like to think those would be enough to motivate us, right? But there are some persuasive self-serving reasons to do it, too. A Psychology Today blog reflecting on the CNCS report points out that volunteering has the following benefits for the people who do it:

  • Volunteers live longer and are healthier and happier. Late in life, the article says, volunteering can be even more beneficial than exercising and eating well. (The CNCS report The Health Benefits of Volunteering has details on this, too.)
  • Volunteering can create strong relationships. People form new bonds and strengthen old ones over shared passions.
  • Volunteers tend to make more money. Volunteering builds your network, which can lead to career advancement. (See also CNCS’ Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment, which suggests that unemployed individuals who volunteer have 27 percent higher odds of finding work at the end of a year.)

List of Tips

OK, so say I want to reap some of those benefits. How do I find something that feels meaningful and that I’m likely to stick with? CNCS has a list of tips; here are a few that speak to me:

  • Research the causes or issues that are important to you. Find something you feel strongly about.
  • Find tasks that match your skills.
  • Request an interview. If an organization seems like a good fit, prepare like it’s a job interview. Be ready to describe your interests, qualifications and background, and take the opportunity to ask questions about the organization and its relationship with its volunteers.
  • Consider whether the organization offers training or professional development for its volunteers.
  • Volunteer with friends or family. It can help keep you engaged.

Retaining Volunteers

When I start researching organizations, I’ll also know to look for a place that follows the advice cited in this Stanford Social Innovation Review article on how to retain volunteers:

  • Assign them tasks that match their skills.
  • Provide opportunities to share experiences with other volunteers.
  • Support new volunteers.
  • Inform them through regular communication.
  • Welcome and respect them.

OK, I think I have some action items. Next time, I’ll explore what some of my colleagues say about why they volunteer. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your reasons for volunteering—how you found a great fit, what keeps you motivated and any other tips you’d like to share. Post your thoughts in the comments below!

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