The [Surprising] Benefits of Volunteering
A couple of months ago, I decided to do a post on volunteering. And when I sat down to learn more about its benefits, I found out some surprising things. After I completed it, I decided to wait and post it on April 1st, the beginning of National Volunteers Month. Then Covid-19 hit, and I wondered how relevant it would be. You may think there's not much you can do in the way of volunteer work currently. But it turns out there's quite a lot based on my internet search. So I have added a section at the end about volunteering during our coronavirus pandemic.
There's barely been a time in my adult life when I haven't been a volunteer somewhere. I started as a graduate student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a member of the Planned Parenthood board of directors. As I entered my career in academic social work, I learned that volunteering at a community agency was an expected part of my service responsibilities. After Planned Parenthood, I volunteered on the board of a small family service agency and later did pro bono (unpaid, as a volunteer) work there as a counselor.
Later, I served on the board of directors of two different programs that delivered treatment services to clients with drug and alcohol problems, including serving as president.
Of course I know that volunteers benefit the organizations where they donate their time and energy. But it wasn't until I started to do research for this post that I learned of the benefits of volunteering for the volunteers themselves.
Perhaps the best kept secret about volunteering is that it not only benefits the organizations, it's good for you as well. In fact, being a volunteer can have a dramatic effect on your overall well-being.
The Benefits of Volunteering Span Many Different Areas
The physical health benefits of volunteering have been well studied. People who volunteer have been found to live longer and are at lower risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Older adult volunteers have been found to walk more. Volunteering can reduce chronic pain.
Volunteering has been associated with reduced stress, enhanced self-esteem and life satisfaction, and an improved sense of overall well-being. It is personally satisfying to feel that you have helped others. Being a volunteer can help counteract anxiety and combat depression. Volunteering has been found to enhance coping and problem solving.
Volunteering usually entails working with other people, either paid staff or volunteers (an exception might be assignments that entail primarily computer-based work). It can effectively combat loneliness and social isolation, which can be serious problems for older people not headed to work every day. Volunteering usually involves meeting new people, forming new social relationships and attachments. It can lead to new friendships.
School and the workplace are not the only settings where you can learn new things and develop new skills. Volunteering has even been found to reduce the risk of Alzheimers disease, probably because it typically leads to learning new things and forming social connections. In addition, becoming a volunteer can help people to find new meaning and sense of purpose in life, especially those who have experienced losses, as is common in the elderly.
These benefits can be achieved with a few hours as two to three per week, or a hundred per year. Some studies have found that older people derive the most benefit from sharing themselves with others as volunteers.
The bottom line: Volunteering can be fun. It makes us feel good when we get out and donate our time and energy to help others.
How to Find a Satisfying Volunteer Opportunity
The range of possible volunteer experiences is vast, spanning many sectors of society, organizations, and populations. People volunteer in the neighborhoods and in other countries, indoors or outdoors.
The key is to find a position you enjoy and are capable of performing.
To help find and opportunity that is a good fit for you, think about the following questions?
- What are you passionate about? What causes are important to you?
- How much time can you commit?
- What skills do you bring?
- Would you prefer to work behind the scenes or in a more visible position?
- Would you rather work alone or with a group of people?
- Would you prefer to work with people (children, teens, or adults) or animal?
As you look for a position, don't jump at the first thing that comes along unless you feel it's a good fit. There are many organizations looking for volunteers and you might want to consider several, even visiting them in person, before making a final decision. The internet is your most valuable resource for finding opportunities, but don't overlook talking to friends about whether they volunteer.
A variety of organizations can use volunteers:
- Hospitals or other health agencies
- Libraries, museum, and cultural organizations
- Animal shelters and groups that rescue animals
- Social agencies and programs that serve children, such as kids in foster care or sports teams
- Outdoor-oriented groups such as recreation programs for kids
- Cities and towns
- Religious organizations such as churches or synagogues
When you consider a potential group to volunteer with, be sure to ask questions upfront about matters such as the minimum time commitment expected, whether particular skills or training are required, and whether you will be working with others or on your own.
Volunteering during Covid-19
An internet search today (April 1, 2020) revealed that volunteers are needed more than ever during this pandemic. Online, I learned that many localities, counties usually, have recent posts about their need for volunteers. I saw that Pima County, home of Tucson, AZ, was seeking people with medical backgrounds, especially nurses, who might be willing to help out. It turns out that despite the fact that Arizona is under an executive order to "stay at home," volunteers are considered essential workers (I told you volunteers were important!).
Some opportunities I found doing a quick online search that you, too, can do include:
- donating blood through the Red Cross
- delivering meals while practicing appropriate social distancing
- online tasks; contact local nonprofits in your area that might need your help
- check out your local (county usually) United Way which works with many nonprofits that might benefit from your donated assistance
- if you have basic sewing skills and a sewing machine, you can help by making masks and donating them to medical organizations; instructions and patterns can be found online
Obviously, the most important consideration is that you stay safe and not be sick if you would be interacting in any way with others. So, you should inquire in advance about whether and special safety precautions are necessary.
The website volunteermatch.org can be a good place to start looking for opportunities in your local community. If you're not already volunteering, maybe it's time to start!