By Kathleen Provost

As a professional fundraiser, I am often reminded of the words of Winston Churchill: “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” Why people chose to volunteer will vary from person to person. But what is true is that once we find the right fit, the right volunteer experience, we’ll enrich the lives of others as well as our own life with this experience. When we have the sense that our efforts contribute towards making society better for all of us, we all feel good. It’s a win-win situation. Hence who really benefits: the volunteer, or the cause we chose to support?

Why volunteer?

I realized early in life that there were a number of ways to make a difference in my community. As a teenager, I did not have the funds to make a donation for a scholarship to a young student in need; but I could raise funds by volunteering with an organization that used its funds to offer scholarships to students in need. I soon learnt that not only was volunteering rewarding for me, but volunteering helped me develop new skills. With that in mind, I also saw the benefits of complementing my own “skills set” with skills and talents I may not otherwise possess. I also realized that I felt better about myself for volunteering. So why do we volunteer?

Lauren Melnick works at GVI, an organization working with participants and partners from around the world. GVI and its partners are building a global network of people united by their passion to make a difference. She states that: “as volunteers, we benefit immensely from our benevolent efforts”.

An increasing amount of research in mental health and the benefits of volunteer-work has emerged recently from the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers are looking at how “acts of doing good for others” seem more important than ever — and how their positive outcomes are felt in multiple ways. Some say volunteering is good for our health because we feel inspired and gain different perspectives on life. Volunteering can help us learn new skills which improve our employability and increase our self-esteem. When we contribute to a cause we believe in, we feel we are having an impact, and immerse ourselves in our community.

Authors Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. and Lawrence Robinson even claim it is beneficial to our health to volunteer because it reduces stress, combats depression and keeps us mentally stimulated. For example, volunteering to help those in need, or to have an impact on a social issue, or for a cause, can result in improving our health, our wellbeing, and our happiness. Therefore, when choosing to volunteer we must make sure we are comfortable with our choices and that the experience brings us joy. We must consider our own interests and our own skill set. We can choose an experience to “teach us new skills”, or we may elect to volunteer in an area where we have specific abilities to bring towards a specific effort. We must also be honest about our limitations whether they be: physical, mental, emotional or cultural. And we must give serious consideration to the time we are willing and able to commit as a volunteer. When we search thoroughly, and find the right volunteer experience for us, it is rewarding, and we actually end up having fun!

What does it mean for the charitable sector?

Is it possible that by involving volunteers we can add value to organizations and help these organizations achieve their objectives? Organizations that involve volunteers can engage a more diverse range of skills, experiences and knowledge to benefit their own organization. By providing volunteering opportunities for individuals, charitable organizations can build relationships within the community they are involved with and provide opportunities for social inclusion, skills development and potential routes to employment.

Volunteers can become an integral part of a charitable organization. These individual volunteers may inform the development and delivery of activities, projects or services by bringing new opinions, ideas and approaches. Volunteers can also help organizations by identifying opportunities for improvement. For example, some individuals can impact an organization by providing governance expertise, and others could handle everyday tasks. For any organization, big or small, the involvement of volunteers can reduce operational costs, or even improve the quality of the services delivered.

The importance of volunteers

In the summer of 2020, Tobi Johnson (Volunteer Management) commented on a research looking into the challenges of nonprofit executives. She shared that even if there is an obvious positive connection between volunteering and philanthropy there are still thriving silos between volunteers and donors. Johnson wrote:

“While it may be easy to pinpoint the value of a volunteer board director, it’s a little more difficult for leaders to see the contributions of rank-and-file volunteers and how they are a key part in helping an organization thrive over the long-term.”

And yet, in the midst of a global pandemic, we struggle to make a difference and find alternative solutions to problems that have impacted vulnerable populations or marginalized social issues. There is still a lack of understanding as to the virtue and the value volunteers can bring to our charitable sector. Unfortunately, volunteers are considered more “tactical” than “strategic” which leaves a large void in our organizational plans, be they strategic plans, development plans, resources and talent plans, marketing plans or others.

Given we are facing unprecedented challenges it would be apparent for us to bring our volunteers closer and engage them in conversations about our work today and into the future. We can work with our volunteers for advice, or we can engage them in special projects. When engaging volunteers in any way, they should feel supported and resourced appropriately. It is worth our investment because we should never take volunteers for granted. Remember, they have chosen us.

The meaning behind a volunteer experience

It was in December 1736, that Benjamin Franklin conceived and founded the Union Fire Company, the first volunteer fire brigade in Pennsylvania. Throughout his life Franklin led a number of private, voluntary initiatives to enhance civil society. He stated: “It is prodigious the quantity of good that may be done by one man, if he will make a business of it.” In the 1920s, some individuals volunteered to support their communities because the church dictated that it was the right thing to do. Today, as young adults, my daughter and my son elect to buy gently used items because, for them, it is the right thing to do. This is how my children chose to have an impact and engage in protecting the environment; it just looks different than how I engage to make a difference. Even some service clubs, religious groups or benevolence organizations who once rallied volunteers to have a community impact are facing challenges today when attempting to recruit volunteer members.

Volunteering looks different for each individual, and for each generation. Some individuals, like Franklin, volunteered by conviction. I volunteer by modeling my family values and practices because it made sense to me. Today, in a world where we self-educate and browse the web to answer our questions, there are open digital forums offering collaborative courses. These virtual courses are accessible to all and aimed at providing the learner with an opportunity to engage in an informal learning forum.

Volunteer relationships within the charitable sector, for the greater good of a cause, have become a partnership. If social groups are smaller in size, it does not mean there are less volunteers; it just means how we volunteer to make a difference looks different. Whether we create a Go Fund Me group, or whether we show up every month for a Board Meeting for a local charity, or whether we walk door-to-door to visit new community members, we all just want to know that our actions have an impact in our community. It does not matter how the volunteer defines this community, by cause, by geography or virtually.

Let’s remember, when volunteering the rewards are multi-fold for all involved — the volunteer, the beneficiary, the organization and the community. We can all make a difference in our own way.

Kathleen A. Provost, CFRE is currently the Director, Campaign Initiatives at St. Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, NS. She brings over 25 years of fundraising experience within the charitable sector. She has been a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) since 2007, and a long-time member and volunteer for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). She writes this column exclusively for each issue of Foundation Magazine.

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