Opportunity Index Series: You Can Volunteer Yourself to a Better Life in More Ways Than One•
Why volunteer? It seems there are millions of reasons why Americans volunteer their time and energy each year to an endless list of causes and efforts. Many of us do it to honor a friend, flex our altruistic biceps or fluff up our resumes and strengthen skills in between jobs. No matter the reasoning, it’s clear that we all stand to gain from lending a hand.
According to the Opportunity Index which measures 16 key indicators of a region’s economic, educational and civic health, 26.4% of American adults over 18 years old volunteered in the past year. The value of such service is difficult to calculate, but approximately 64.3 million Americans donated 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service, with an estimated value of $171 billion.
New research shows, however, volunteering is not just good for one’s soul or resume. It also can serve as a powerful pathway out of poverty.
According to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteers without a high school diploma have a 51 percent higher likelihood of finding employment.
Unemployed adults can use service opportunities to build personal networks while fostering a relationship with a parent organization, all the while adding to their repertoire of skills. The report also found that volunteers are 27 percent more likely than non-volunteers to find a job after being out of work. It is clear that the network expansion that volunteering facilitates opens new avenues to find work, and in the meantime the volunteering activity itself enhances skills that are fundamental to a variety of jobs.
The benefits of volunteering don’t end there. New research is even showing that there are health benefits of volunteering: volunteers have lower mortality rates, higher functional ability, and lower rates of depression than those who do not volunteer, all of which are conducive to advancing one’s career path. In short, if you’re unemployed, volunteering will better equip you to get back into the workforce.
Leading the way as an advocate for volunteerism as a powerful change agent, Opportunity Nation Steering Committee member Points of Light reinforces the theme of empowerment and expansion of opportunity through community service. The organization seeks to “connect people with their power to create positive change and address the critical needs of our communities.”
Sometimes that change and work begins in ourselves, and we end up as the biggest beneficiaries of our community service.
I’ve experienced vast personal growth through my own volunteer work, and I’ve applied it to my subsequent vocations. Growing up, I spent time playing with toddlers and painting murals at one of Horizons for Homeless Children’s many shelters in the Boston area. I was able to gain perspective about others’ struggles, learn leadership and teamwork skills and experience the world in a new way. I left every encounter feeling joyfully fulfilled. More importantly, I left feeling better equipped to tackle new challenges and provide greater utility. As if all of that wasn’t enough, I even got a couple of free t-shirts!
Think about what you have to offer, and think about what you stand to gain from volunteering. The great thing about it is that there are so many ways to do it. Plant a tree, hand out food or help build a house. Find a way to make an impact in your community, and encourage others to do the same.
You can also nominate local heroes for honors such as the Daily Point of Light Award, which recognizes those doing the groundwork to conquer community needs through volunteer service.
No matter your motives, no matter your methods, no matter your background, don’t underestimate the positive impact that volunteerism can have on you and your community.
About this week’s indicator:
Opportunity Index Dimension: Community Health and Civic Life
Indicator: Volunteerism (percent of adults (ages 18 and older) who did volunteer work through or for an organization at any time in the previous year)
Source: Measure of America analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau, DataFerrett,
Current Population Survey, Volunteering Supplement
Rationale for inclusion: Like group membership, volunteerism is a metric of social capital; it serves as a proxy for community trust and social cohesion, both of which are important contributors to expanding access to opportunity.
Bryan Schoen is a summer intern at Opportunity Nation and will enter his senior year at Georgetown University this fall.