The Bureau of Labor Statistics just released the 2013 volunteering rates for the United States, showing a decline to 25.4 percent, the lowest rate since the survey was first administered in 2002. These rates reflect adults in the U.S. who spent as little as one hour volunteering for an organization in the last 12 months. Adults who regularly volunteer make up only a small fraction of this group. Some suggest that the decline in volunteering is due in part to the struggling economy; people are focusing on getting and maintaining adequate paid work and don’t feel they have time to think about unpaid work. However, volunteering isn’t something to put off until you have extra time and money. There are numerous reasons why the returns far outweigh the time you invest, especially during lean times. I’ll point out just five reasons you should consider making volunteering a part of your everyday life.
1. Volunteers live longer and are healthier. Volunteers are happier and healthier than non-volunteers. In fact, later in life, volunteering is even more beneficial for one's health than exercising and eating well. Older people who volunteer remain physically functional longer, have more robust psychological well-being, and live longer. However, older people who volunteer are almost always people who volunteered earlier in life. Health and longevity gains from volunteering come from establishing meaningful volunteer roles before you retire and continuing to volunteer once you arrive in your post-retirement years.
2. Volunteering establishes strong relationships. Despite all of the online connections that are available at our fingertips, people are lonelier now than ever before. Indeed, a 2010 AARP study reported that prevalence of loneliness is at an all time high, with about one in three adults age 45 or older categorized as lonely. Online connections, while useful for maintaining existing relationships, are not very helpful in establishing lasting, new ones. Working alongside people who feel as strongly as you do about supporting a particular cause creates a path to developing strong relationships with others. It isn’t just beneficial for making new friendships, either: Volunteering alongside other members of your family strengthens family bonds based in “doing” your values. And these benefits have a ripple effect. Children who volunteer with their parents are more likely to become adults who volunteer.
3. Volunteering is good for your career. People who volunteer make more money, partially because the relationships people create while volunteering can be leveraged for financial benefit. In 1973, Johns Hopkins sociologist Mark Granovetter described the important role of “weak ties.” Weak ties are those relationships that are outside of one’s close-knit social network. These relationships are important because they provide access to new information and opportunities. People in your close network provide redundant information: They are already participating in the same kinds of activities and know the same people. Volunteering has long been viewed as a way to create new “weak tie” connections that lead to career opportunities. Volunteering in your current career industry—or an area you’d like to transition into—is an especially effective way to leverage social connections for career gain.
4. Volunteering is good for society. Many businesses, and almost all mission-driven organizations, are successful only if they maintain a strong volunteer workforce. In fact, places like museums, social service organizations, and faith-based organizations often rely on more volunteers than paid workers to meet their goals and fulfill their mission. These businesses are committed to doing good things for society. They pick up the pieces where government programs leave off, and by volunteering for these organizations, you participate in helping society meet the needs of people from all walks of life.
For example, The Borgen Project, a campaign committed to addressing the problem of global poverty, relies on volunteers who commit several hours a week for a period of six months or longer to help with raising awareness, fundraising, and mobilization of human and fiscal resources (borgenproject.org). With the help of volunteers, the Borgen Project has been successful in raising awareness and influencing legislation to make positive changes that directly affect the world’s poorest citizens.
5. Volunteering gives you a sense of purpose. Although it is not well understood why volunteering provides such a profound health benefit, a key factor is assumed to be that volunteering serves to express and facilitate opportunities to carry out one’s sense of purpose. The very nature of volunteering means choosing to work without being paid for it. As a result, people choose to spend their time on issues they feel strongly about. If you are greatly concerned about the treatment and well-being of animals, for example, volunteering at an animal shelter will help you address a social problem that is meaningful to you.
If you aren’t currently volunteering—three out of four of us aren’t—there are many online resources to help you find an opportunity. Committing even as little as one hour a week can have a profound benefit on your own life, and the organizations that rely on such help will be able to thrive. Check out volunteermatch.org, serve.gov, allforgood.org, idealist.org, or go directly to an organization you support and ask what you can do. You’ll get more back than you ever imagined.