The Surge of Volunteerism

The Washington Post had two articles celebrating volunteerism in its Sunday edition: one focused on the surge of new volunteers while the other captured the volunteer experience as Travelers Aids at local airports and train stations. Both captured the optimism that can be found in these challenging times if we bother to look. Both also confirm that volunteering is alive and well in the US. That’s good news for associations and nonprofits in all sectors.

There’s one other message: volunteerism is triggered by the need to be needed. And that’s a message that we don’t listen to nearly enough.

Robert McCartney reports that new volunteers are motivated foremost by “a desire to assist at a time of social distress.” He reflects on reports by Madye Henson, president and chief executive of Greater DC Cares, which recruits, trains and places volunteers for 750 nonprofits and schools across the region who said they will smash last year’s record year of connecting 12,000 volunteers to jobs. She estimates they will supply more than 20,000 volunteers this year with the majority of newcomers having not volunteered previously. She attributed this surge to “people recognizing that the level of need is greater now than at any time in recent memory.”

Andrea Sachs in her article on Travelers Aids relates a very similar message: volunteers are driven to fulfill the mission to help any stranded traveler. And like the reports from Henson, volunteering is on the rise and in fact Travelers Aid at Dulles will be doubling their force to 400.

In The Decision To Volunteer, ASAE reported similar findings that association members are driven to volunteer because they need to make a difference; they are helping others. According to the research the social reasons for volunteering – desire to help others, support a cause or profession and act on compassionate instincts is ranked most important for any kind of volunteering – trump the professional reasons. Why? Because ultimately if we are going to give our time, we’re want it to count.

If volunteerism is alive and well, then associations can succeed in attracting volunteers. We can succeed, that is, if we take the time to make sure our volunteer positions are meaningful and that we let members know these jobs are indeed helping others. The test for meaning is simple: does the task further the mission in a demonstrative way? Are yours?