Unexpected Payoffs: The Benefits of Volunteering

by Lane Wallace on April 6, 2009

Yet another entry in the “silver linings” category of the economic downturn …

One emerging beneficiary of the widespread rash of professional layoffs, it seems, is the non-profit, volunteer world. A recent front-page article in the New York Times  reported that large numbers of laid-off professionals are looking to volunteer their services while still searching for a new job.

The flood is apparently overwhelming some agencies, as people seek to put their professional skills to use not just the typical one or two hours a week, but 20 hours a week or more. But clearly, the market’s loss is still the community’s gain, and a boon to social service and volunteer-dependent organizations.

Once upon a time, many volunteer organizations relied on non-working (read: married with a well-paid, working spouse) Americans to staff many community-oriented projects. But then women joined the workforce in larger numbers, dual-income families became the norm, and volunteerism declined (although not solely because of two-income family working patterns).

Interestingly enough, in 1998, when the economy was booming and fortunes were being made, Americans as a whole donated 400 million fewer hours to community or non-profit service than they did in 1995. And more than in past decades, the hours we did donate were one-shot deals (e.g. a day spent on a Habitat for Humanity project) versus a regular commitment, such as delivering services to the elderly or poor.

Correlative is not necessarily causal, of course. But it’s an interesting thought to ponder … did the boom, and its lure of big money for anyone grabbing hold at the right time, make us all a bit more concerned with investing our time for maximum economic benefit versus community good? Is there a correlation? Good economic times leads to a decrease in volunteer efforts, while bad economic times lead to an increase in community service?

People interviewed for the Times’ article also pointed to President Obama’s national call to service as a motivating factor. But the biggest piece of the equation seemed to be simply the interviewees’ desire to have some purpose in their suddenly-empty days.

Two points here stand out for me:

1. We often think that paradise would be a day where we didn’t have to do anything. Lay on a beach and drink margaritas. And in an otherwise productive and busy life, full of purpose and meaning, that might even be true—at least for a couple of weeks. But take away the surrounding work and purpose, and a day with nothing to do suddenly takes on a whole different hue … especially if that one day stretches out toward the calendar’s horizon with no change of status in sight.

The enthusiasm with which these new volunteers are seeking an outlet for their energies argues for how much we need not idleness, but engagement and purpose, in order to find our days satisfying. Worth thinking about as we figure out what our goals for life or retirement should be.

2. While the immediate beneficiaries of this trend may be the agencies and organizations reaping the time and professional skills of these newly-idle workers, I would argue that the volunteers themselves are getting an unexpected break. Not without cost, of course. Losing one’s job and income is stressful in all sorts of ways. But precisely because it’s so stressful, few of us would ever voluntarily step out of the workforce to try volunteering 20 hours a week at a food bank, hospice program, or school for a while. Which means we wouldn’t be exposed to the life education and change in scenery, activity, group association, and pure life experience that these volunteers are also receiving.

How, exactly, will their experiences benefit these volunteers? I don’t know. The volunteers themselves may not know, for some time. But just as one example … author J.K. Rowling credits her time working at Amnesty International in her early 20s—where she encountered victims of torture and persecution whose troubles far outweighed her own—with providing part of the impetus and story material for the Harry Potter books.

Point is, you never know what getting out into the world, into a new adventure or environment, might give you, or teach you, and how that learning might influence your life down the line. But my guess is that even if these volunteers get new career jobs tomorrow, their “time-out” in soup kitchens and community organizations will weave some new, interesting and colorful threads into the tapestries of their lives that they never would have known, if life had just gone according to plan.

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Volunteering can transform your life
04.23.09 at 1:19 am

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe S 04.07.09 at 8:40 pm

As much as needing an outlet for energy and a sense of purpose, volunteering also provides a connection to others, a clan, that has suddenly gone missing when you lose your job. People are glad to see you. You are useful, both in accomplishing an agenda and providing the same social connection that you need. Reciprocity at its finest.

One valuable benefit I’ve found from volunteering is the opportunity to gain first-hand insight into a whole different world, that you wouldn’t otherwise experience. It’s easy to get parochial and insular in our viewpoints and mindset. As we try to make sense of the world, having these disparate perspectives is valuable. My volunteer work with inner city youths has helped me understand how some of the supports and opportunities missing from their lives impacts their goals and decisions. It’s also been inspiring to see what some of them can achieve despite what is lacking. And of course it makes me realize the influence of the many advantages I had growing up.

2 Michael B 04.08.09 at 12:55 am

Volunteerism is an oxymoron.

After all, the point of volunteering is to give of yourself without expectation of gain or remuneration. But one cannot give without receiving that gift in return, tenfold at least, in the form of intangible (and sometimes tangible) benefits both internally and externally. I think Lane makes an excellent point as to the reason for more volunteering in these times. I would also offer that some are more giving right now as an antidote for these times. Volunteering provides the instant (more or less) gratification of feeling better about ones own world when surrounded by those with much larger problems.

Ironically, this turns volunteering into a selfish activity. As I said, volunteerism is an oxymoron!

3 Della S 05.12.09 at 4:18 pm

Volunteering can also be a great way to re-energize your professional life/skills. Volunteering can help you “test-drive” new careers or sectors. It can also help you re-discover your passions - many of the volunteers I work with (in a program where they use their professional skills to help nonprofits) report that they had lost touch with the reason they originally started in a field - the scientist who now spends his day managing people or the HR professional who never gets to actually work with individual people anymore find that the work they AREN’t paid for can make their paid work more satisying and rewarding - a real boon to prevent burn-out.

4 Lindsey Petersen 12.01.09 at 5:00 pm

I have written an article entitled “Volunteering is a Gift you Give Yourself”. Please read it on my blog at http://5kidswdisabilities.wordpress.com. Please check it out and feel free to use it for newsletters.

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