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Why is Volunteering Important?

The Value of Volunteerism to Volunteers, Nonprofits, and the Communities They Serve

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Why is volunteering important?

Volunteerism is ingrained in American society. 77.3 million adults volunteered through an organization last year, and their time is worth a staggering $163 billion in economic value. More than half of adults engage in “informal volunteering” in the United States, supporting friends, family, and neighbors. Without volunteers, communities would face devastating gaps in necessary services.  In other words, let’s volunteer; we’re all better for it!

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The Importance of Volunteering for Volunteers

There’s no question that volunteering helps improve the lives of others. But how important is volunteering to the volunteer? Simply put, acts of good can also improve their lives too. Did you know that altruism is good for your health? In fact, BMC Public Health conducted a study advising public health, education, and policy practitioners to encourage volunteering to help support a healthy lifestyle. The study also urges social service professionals to promote a “culture of volunteerism among underprivileged social groups.” In other words, volunteering can promote well-being for everyone. 

The Importance of Volunteer Work For Adults

Many studies have stated the importance of community service to the well-being of the volunteers themselves. The health benefits of volunteerism are especially evident in adults:

  • Improvements in Emotional Well-Being: The human brain is wired to help others. Or emotional health is rewarded when we participate in altruistic behavior. According to a report by the Corporation for National & Community Service, research has uncovered a strong relationship between volunteering and improved functional ability, as well as lower rates of depression later in life. A study of adults over age 65 found that the social interaction and sense of accomplishment that volunteering activities can provide have been linked to the overall improvement in mental health and general life satisfaction in older adults.
  • Improvements in Physical Health: The same study also reported that volunteering can lead to improvements in physical health in older adults, as many service activities involve light to moderate physical activity. Furthermore, this study found that volunteers were more likely to use preventive health care services than non-volunteers. And volunteers spent fewer nights in hospitals. If you’re already volunteering regularly, you may be healthier than you realize!
  • Improvements in Pro-Social Behavior: It’s not uncommon for older adults to feel out of touch with changing communities. Volunteering encourages people of all ages to interact with–and work to understand–each other, strengthening social ties and inspiring feelings of empathy. 
  • Longer, Happier Lives: Adults over 50 who volunteered at least 200 hours per year were less stressed, more social, and had a lower risk of hypertension. In fact, the effects of altruism are so powerful that researchers have found a link between volunteerism and lower mortality rates in older adults.

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The Importance of Youth Volunteerism 

Volunteerism isn’t just good for adults. It can help children, teens, and college students develop important habits for life. Here are a few significant reasons volunteering is important for young people:

  • Develop Transferable Skills: Children and young adults who volunteer regularly practice skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and leadership that are vital to succeed in academics, the workplace, and their personal lives. 
  • Support Academic Success: 82% of students who participated in service-learning opportunities reported increased positive feelings about attending school. Children who volunteer are also found to be more engaged in academics by helping them apply classroom-based learning to real-world situations.
  • Practice Empathy: Empathy and citizenship are developed during childhood and adolescence. Participating in volunteer activities from an early age can help foster empathy and inclusivity, qualities necessary for building safe, unified communities. 
  • Help Children Value Themselves: As children grow, they develop an increased self-awareness. Children and teens who consistently participate in acts of good through activities like community service not only learn to value others, they learn to respect themselves, which is critical to sustaining emotional well-being. 
  • Reinforce Social Capital: Participating in community service is especially important for low-income youth. Research shows that volunteering can serve as an “effective conduit to positive educational and career outcomes for low-income youth” (Opportunity Nation).  
  • Create Volunteers for Life: Children and teens who volunteer are more likely to become more civically-engaged adults. Young people who volunteer regularly are more likely to volunteer and donate to community causes as adults. 

There are plenty of ways organizations and communities can engage young volunteers. Check out this article for best practices in engaging teen volunteers

The Importance of Volunteers to Nonprofit Organizations

Why is volunteering important to our nation’s nonprofits? There are currently 1.3 million active charitable nonprofits in the United States, and many of them rely on the work of volunteers to carry out the necessary activities that meet critical community needs. What’s more, nonprofits are the “building blocks of democracy,” according to the National Council of Nonprofits. 88% of U.S. nonprofit organizations have an operating budget of $500,000 and offer “more personal, easier access points for connecting people in all kinds of areas.” Nonprofits know why volunteers are important: volunteers help them to address pressing social challenges when resources are scarce. Without their services, our nation would be without some of the most important social advancements like modern welfare and the Voting Rights Act. 

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The Importance of Volunteers to Communities

We’ve discussed the importance of volunteering to the volunteers themselves and to the charitable organizations that manage them. But we mustn’t forget the true aim of volunteering in the local community: to improve the lives of community members! The importance of community service is considerable, and there are countless benefits that communities glean from nonprofits and their volunteers.

Every day, volunteers:

  • Support families through daycare and eldercare
  • Improve schools by tutoring and teaching literacy
  • Support youth in mentoring and after-school programs
  • Beautify local areas through beach and park cleanups
  • Build homes for the homeless
  • Provide meals for the hungry
  • Fundraise for nonprofit museums, libraries, and the arts
  • Help with environmental conservation efforts
  • Care for abandoned animals 
  • And much, much more!

Generally, volunteerism saves resources, especially where social programs and affordable services are limited. Volunteering helps to fill these gaps in critical services. Every hour that we give to our community through volunteerism is an hour that the community gains back in real dollars. Those dollars (deemed $25.43 hour by the Independent Sector) can then be spent in other ways that serve and better the community.

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The importance of volunteering in the community cannot be overstated. Volunteers help meet critical, local needs. But community service also offers symbolic importance. Barbara Steward, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, reminds us, “The fabric of our nation is strengthened by the service of its volunteers. When we stand side-by-side to help others, our differences fade away, and we learn that Americans have more in common than we realize.” In summary, volunteerism not only saves resources for the community; it’s what brings us together. 

Three Ways to Engage Volunteers 

We understand the importance of volunteerism, but in order to meet the needs of communities, nonprofits must work to engage long-term volunteers and create a culture of volunteerism. Nonprofit Quarterly lays out three essential tips for engaging committed volunteers:

  1. Show prospective volunteers they matter: One of the most common hurdles to engagement is time. People don’t have a lot of it, so they want to know that their time spent in your organization matters, and that will be used in a meaningful way. They also want to see the tangible impact of their efforts. Use your volunteer hours tracking and reporting tools to demonstrate their impact and recognize their efforts. 
  2. Figure out what matters to your community: What inspires you to volunteer? Organizations are more likely to engage volunteers when they understand what inspires them and the causes that resonate with them. There are many ways you can gather this kind of information, like hosting community-wide forums and discussions, conducting surveys, and matching volunteer skills to the appropriate opportunities. Nonprofit Quarterly recommends creating multi-stakeholder buy-in–from schools, residents, and community organizations–to understand a range of diverse perspectives and community needs. 
  3. Keep asking: Many people don’t volunteer simply because they were never asked. Use different methods of communication to ask once, and then ask again! Nonprofits are getting more creative about the ways in which they recruit volunteers. However, you decide to reach out, include a call to action and make registration as simple as possible.

Volunteerism is contagious. When community members work together to address local needs, they increase social capital and strengthen the networks with other civically-engaged individuals. Communities with robust social capital tend to foster more pro-social citizens. Creating a positive experience for your volunteers, and listening to the diverse perspectives of your community members will help to bolster the attitudes, like trust and empathy, that make charitable organizations successful.

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