Volunteering is good both for you and your community
By Radha Marcum
You may have begun by volunteering once a year at a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. Or when a friend dragged you out of your office one spring day to help coach an after-school soccer team. No matter how you started, you probably weren’t alone. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 59 million Americans volunteered from September 2001 through September 2002. Each volunteer spent an impressive average of 52 hours in service over those 12 months. As a group, they filled a variety of roles: Most either taught or coached (24 percent); canvassed, campaigned, or raised funds (23 percent); collected, made, served, or delivered goods (22 percent); or served on boards, committees, or in neighborhood associations (16 percent). With approximately one-third of the population of the United States volunteering, what motivates do-gooders to get and stay involved?
The spirit of giving back
Whether it’s volunteering for the environment, an animal shelter, or a political campaign, most people pick a particular cause for a reason. “People want to make a difference,” says Sarah Jane Rehnborg, PhD, lecturer in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and consultant to the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas, Austin. Without volunteers, many nonprofits wouldn’t have the resources to operate. For example, the AIDS Project Los Angeles—one of the nation’s largest AIDS organizations serving more than 10,000 people living with HIV and AIDS—relies on more than 2,000 volunteers to support their regular staff of approximately 175. Volunteers are needed in almost every area of the organization, from orchestrating food drives, to translating publications from English to Spanish, to assisting clients with filling out health-benefit forms. Although it may be difficult to place a monetary value on something that reaches well beyond dollars and cents, Independent Sector—an organization of approximately 1 million U.S. nonprofits—estimates the total dollar value of volunteer time for 2002 at an astounding $256 billion.
Share your stories Has volunteering for a special cause brought meaning to your life? We want to hear about your favorite volunteering activities and notable personal experiences. E-mail us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beyond making services possible, volunteers touch the personal lives of others. “There’s a sense that by sharing their skills and talents, [volunteers] are alleviating suffering or distress for others,” says Rehnborg. Another way to express this, she explains, is that volunteers have compassion—an ideal that lies at the heart of almost every major religion. In the Christian tradition, “there’s the idea that you’ve been given gifts and talents by God to help others,” she says. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Prajnaparamita says that those who strive for enlightenment resolve “to be a shelter for the world, to be a refuge … the world’s rest.” Giving to the needy is also one of the five pillars of Islam.
Ninety-five percent of those who volunteered regularly reported feeling a “helper’s high.” “The real test for people in all religions is to develop the ability to connect with and help another human being,” says Allan Luks, director of of Big Brothers Big Sisters in New York City, a nonprofit agency that provides mentoring programs to at-risk children and teens, and coauthor of The Healing Power of Doing Good (Universe, 2001). “Face-to-face volunteering on a regular basis is the essence of spirituality.”
Giving and receiving
Many who have made the effort to reach out—even a small effort—will tell you that the helping goes both ways. What spiritual traditions have taught for centuries and what recent research is now confirming is that, by alleviating the suffering of others, you in turn lighten your own burdens—your stress, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, and even chronic bodily ills.
Volunteering, then, becomes not just the right thing to do for others; it can also be the right thing to do for your health and longevity. “Volunteers tend to be happier and healthier,” says Rehnborg. And the evidence is growing: A 2000 study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, showed that people who volunteered their time for at least four hours a week at two or more organizations were 70 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those of the same age and sex who didn’t volunteer. In another study, researchers at the Harvard Medical School discovered that, of 132 multiple sclerosis patients, “helpers” (those who provided telephone support to others with the same condition) showed increased confidence, self-awareness, and self-esteem, and less fatigue and depression (Social Science and Medicine, 1999, vol. 48, no. 11).
Luks’ research has shown that volunteering boosts a volunteer’s healthy feelings of trust, self-worth, self-control, and self-determination, and promotes a sense of challenge, commitment, optimism, and joy. His largest study of more than 3,000 volunteers, which was cited in his book, found that 95 percent of those who volunteered regularly reported feeling something he termed the “helper’s high,” an immediate feel-good sensation similar to the effects of running or meditation. When the body experiences the helper’s high, he says, it produces endorphins and enjoys a reprieve from life’s daily stresses. Volunteers in the study associated volunteering with health benefits, such as fewer colds, migraines, and bouts of flu; help with insomnia and stomachaches; and quicker recovery from surgery. Not all volunteer activities were equally powerful, however. Those who volunteered at least once a week, had personal contact with those they helped, and helped strangers rather than family members were more likely to experience the helper’s high.
Fitting it in
Opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others are often a phone call away. Yet real or imagined obstacles so easily interfere with our best intentions. If you’re like many Americans, you may feel too busy or intimidated by the process of volunteering. “The two biggest reasons people say they don’t volunteer are that they don’t have the time and they haven’t been asked,” says Luks. But when you look at volunteers and nonvolunteers of the same background (same age, income, and type of job), research shows they have the same amount of potential time for volunteering, Luks claims. “The time problem can be overcome,” he says. Time is difficult to squeeze out of busy work schedules, he admits, but what if more corporations gave employees time to volunteer during work? In fact, more than 30 corporations now work with Big Brothers Big Sisters in New York. However, solving the issue of being asked, he says, is up to the organizations, the media, and public leaders.
The Web has made it easier than ever for volunteers and organizations to find each other.
American Association of Retired Persons (www.aarp.org) hosts on its website a comprehensive guide to volunteering and links to a number of volunteer organizations.
Virtual Volunteering Project (www.service leader.org/new/virtual/index/php) lists volunteering opportunities—such as mentoring, editing, or translating—that can be done via the Internet.
Examples like Mother Theresa have inspired many to reach out and ease the suffering of fellow human beings, but our visions don’t have to be so grand. The spirit is in the smallest acts, too—sometimes in knowing you’ve made even one life a little less hard or lonely. Luks, who also volunteers at a homeless shelter during the winter, says that volunteering can change your outlook toward those outside your usual circle of friends and family. After a night volunteering his service at the homeless shelter, chatting with street people who don’t have any other safe place to go, Luks says “being in a crowded street in New York with all strangers … somehow they’re not exactly strangers because now you feel you have an ability to connect to them. To have that ability gives you a tremendous sense of well-being, a sense of confidence, and a sense of feeling good about yourself.”
Poet and freelance writer Radha Marcum has enjoyed volunteering in a variety of settings, including elementary schools, AIDS organizations, art museums, and literary publications.