The dictionary states that volunteering is an altruistic activity where an individual or group provides services for no financial gain "to benefit another person, group or organization".
Volunteering, in the form which we would understand dates back to 1851 and the creation of the first YMCA in the United States. During the American civil war educator Clara Barton and a team of volunteers started to provide clothing, food and supplies for sick and wounded servicemen. She then formed the American Red Cross in 1851 and began to mobilize volunteers for disaster relief including supporting the victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889.
Today, volunteering is the backbone of many not-for-profit organizations across the US, most would not be unable to survive without the time given freely by individuals every year. However, if you have never volunteered you may not know what it involves or what type of volunteering would be good for you or where to start on your journey to become a volunteer.
Studies by Volunteering in America has shown that young American’s spent over 3.6 million hours for organizations or causes which they felt passionate about.
There is no ‘one size fits all’. Many thousands of potential opportunities exist, allowing you to share your skills and knowledge or learn something totally new. Volunteering posts varying from fundraising and administration, right through to building new schools or sinking wells overseas.
Of course, you may think what is in this for me? It may surprise you that, apart from the feeling of doing something good for the wider community there are a large number of benefits to carrying out volunteer work.
It makes you feel better
It has been shown that taking part in volunteering activities can make you feel better both in your body and your mind! A survey of over 3,000 adults by UnitedHealth Group found that of those people who had volunteered in the previous 76% said that volunteering made them feel better and 94% stated that volunteering improved their mood and self-esteem.
It was found that people who volunteer manage their stress more easily and feel a stronger connection to their community. So doing something good can do you some good! Karla volunteers for a number of organizations, “ I love the voluntary work I do now and equally loved the voluntary work I did for the Stroke Association a few years ago. It gives me a purpose, and is good for my mental health.”
You can learn new skills
When you volunteer you will often get the opportunity to undertake training, learn and practice a number of new skills. Many of these are what are called soft skills, the sort of skills that you are unlikely to learn at university. These include communication skills, teamwork and the ability to adapt to any situation.
Working with strangers on a project where you have to work together will help you build a set of skills and experiences which are vital for every part of your life. You will have to create links and communicate, understand objectives and possibly even resolve disputes.
Soft skills are difficult to represent on your résumé, you can say you have excellent team building or communication skills, however examples of volunteering can allow you to put these into context and demonstrate how you gained and used these skills.
You can make new friends
In a world of online friendships, as you change from high school or college to university you can lose some of the real connections. Whereas it is great to read your friends status updates, it doesn’t compare to 'face to face' friendships!
Volunteering can help you build new friendships with people from all walks of life. You will be meeting in an environment you both support and care about and will be on a shared journey. The people you meet could become very close friends or even more.
You are more likely to socialize with your volunteering colleagues than people who don’t volunteer and they do so more often. The issue is that, despite being more connected than ever we lack real friendships. Without something such as volunteering you can find that you socialize only with work colleagues (if at all). Many people find that they have very few friends who they regularly make contact with, face to face. In a report published by the American Sociological Review, it was found that the average American has only two close friends, and a quarter state they have no close friends at all. Volunteering gives you an opportunity to step out of your usual circle of friends and colleagues and meet new people.
It makes you more employable
We have already touched on soft skills and the impact these can have on your résumé, however it is more important that, employers positively welcome people volunteers. A report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that promotes volunteering found that people who had spent time volunteering had a 27% better chance of finding a job that others who had never volunteered.
An individual who has taken the time and effort to become involved in a volunteer capacity demonstrate a natural work ethic, have a more developed set of soft skills and have gained or updated skills which they will need in the workplace. This is often referred to as ‘human capital’ which is defined as ‘the acquisition of “of all useful skills and knowledge…that is part of deliberate investment.” Schultz (1961). It is seen as an investment in skills and training which have a measurable economic payoff or return on investment.
In terms of potential employment, an employer can obtain an individual who has proven their skills and determination and who will require less investment in their development before they start paying their way in the company.
Of course, it volunteering may lead directly into a role within the not-for-profit sector. Stewart Lucas is the CEO of a major mental health charity in the United Kingdom. “I do what I do because of volunteering.” Stewart spent a year working for a community project in Manchester in the 1990’s. “If I hadn't done my year of volunteering in 1991-92 then I wouldn't be in Manchester and I wouldn't be the CEO of a leading charity. Most of my staff started as volunteers, and volunteers are the lifeblood of all our work. In fact most if not all charity CEOs started as volunteers.” Claire looked to find a role in education and found that volunteering offered the experience and contacts which enabled her to find a permanent job. “I volunteered in a school playgroup. This gave me great references, enabling me to get me a permanent job in a school.”
How can I go about volunteering?
Perhaps you are now convinced that you to look into volunteering opportunities you could find yourself confused by the number of options available to you. A vast multitude of organizations and types of volunteering both in the US and overseas. As a starting point, you may want to have a go at the Reward Volunteers quiz which asks a few simple questions to allow you to understand the sort of volunteering role which may suit your personality.
Volunteer roles are massively varied and reflect the wide range of not-for-profit organizations basic types can include:
The type of roles you can carry out are vast, from organizing charity events, through to supporting the charity administration and governance. You can either find a role where you have skills already or work with the organization to develop new skills.
It may be that you are very outgoing and will suit a role fundraising or campaigning which involves talking with members of the public or public speaking. If you are hands-on and practical you could find roles in conservation, building and maintaining paths and trails, building walls or clearing bushland. If you are a good listener you may find that you may become a befriender or counselor helping people who may be in difficulty and supporting them. If you are sporty you may look at coaching or otherwise supporting local sports teams or activities, this could include marshaling races or helping the safe running of sporting events.
You may want to look further afield when approaching volunteering opportunities and there are a large number of possible roles outside of the US. You should be aware that some projects will expose you to extreme poverty and you need to be sure that you are ready to face the realities of these parts of the world. Remember you will not be able to change everything by yourself, however, by volunteering for these more challenging projects you are making a change and supporting people who truly need your help. As emotional and difficult as some placements can be they can be equally rewarding.
You should be aware that there may well be costs involved with volunteering overseas. This may come as a surprise, however the organizations need to ensure that they have the funds available to support the people in the areas they are in as well as providing a support network for their volunteers including food and accommodation. However, the benefits and experience will greatly outweigh any upfront costs.
The real reason to volunteer
It is true that a number of benefits exist for to you as an individual through volunteering, however it is important to remember the most important reason. Volunteering is a two-way street, it is true that you will gain skills, experience and friendship however in doing so you are giving something very precious - your time and energy. Virtually every single not-for-profit organization relies totally on volunteers to carry out their activities and they really make a difference.
For example, The Samaritans volunteers give over 5.5 million hours of their time freely. This enables them to pick up the phone to callers and answer texts and emails for individuals who make contact, desperate for advice.Callers contact the organisation every 6 seconds day and night.
How you volunteer may not be directly life and death, but it is no doubt that you are enriching others lives. In the words of Linda who has volunteered all her life. “It is truly a rewarding experience. Feeling you are making a difference. Giving without taking. Giving back if you have been given kindness. It is so important.”