Without volunteers to rely on, it is hard to imagine how the public health industry could fulfill its mission. The impact of volunteerism goes far beyond the doctors and nurses who volunteer their time and expertise to free clinics. Many people who want to help others do not need health care experience to support efforts like educating the public about health and safety issues, answering phones at clinics and health hotlines, or delivering meals to seniors.
As busy as life can be, it can seem hard to find the time to volunteer. This guide will help you gain an informed perspective on volunteering. Below we cover the social and economic
impact of volunteers and the personal benefits of volunteering.
We include information about volunteer opportunities in the public health industry as well as many other areas of society. Take note of the key points to consider in your decision to volunteer, then check out the resources we highlighted to help you start your search for the organization that best matches your interests and schedule.
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Making a Difference
A report by the Points of Light Institute states that if volunteers were paid for the services they freely offer, the wages would amount to between $113 billion and $161 billion a year. The report also asserts that, in 2009, 63.4 million American volunteers donated 8.1 billion hours of service, amounting to $169 billion worth of work.
Finally, the report cites research by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, which found that about 140 million people in 37 countries volunteer their services to the equivalent of 20.8 million full-time jobs, contributing about $400 billion to the global economy.
Volunteering plays a key role in strengthening our society by acting as a bridge between socioeconomic divides. On a community level, the organization you become a part of is likely to collaborate in social networks with other volunteer organizations and local governments, providing services that help build a cohesive society.
For corporations, volunteering is a key part of promoting socially responsible business practices by tying in business decisions with respect for the community and the environment. Socially responsible corporations like to be known for founding or supporting philanthropic programs, using eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes, and encouraging their employees to better their communities.
Employee-based volunteer programs strengthen a company’s relationship with its employees by promoting teamwork and encouraging open communication. These programs also firm up the relationship between a business and its surrounding community.
How You Can Benefit
Why do people volunteer? Many people are motivated by selflessness, the desire to feel good, or the need to assuage guilt. Some want to demonstrate their commitment to a cause, while others may be looking for a new challenge to keep themselves busy or simply want to feel needed in some way. Students are often required to log a certain number of volunteer hours as a requirement for admission into a rigorous program.
On a personal level, volunteering has been shown to deliver benefits such as improved social skills, social recognition, higher self-esteem and better health.
Volunteering in activities that strengthen the community can provide you with opportunities to explore new career paths, gain job-related skills, develop leadership abilities and network with community and business leaders. If you are a recent college graduate, looking for a job, or changing careers, volunteering is a great way to gain experience in a new field or "test drive" a new career without having to make a long-term commitment.
Volunteering is a great way to gain experience before beginning a job hunt. Doing so is one of the best way to avoid holes in the timeline of your resume. And beyond that, volunteer experience speaks volumes about your commitment to your community and your drive to be productive. It can also lead to professional networking and career enhancement opportunities, meeting and connecting with like-minded individuals.
Volunteering could be your entry point into organizations or internships that could advance your career. According to a report from The Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteers are 27 percent more likely to find a job than non-volunteers. The report also found that volunteers without a high school diploma are 51 percent more likely to find a job, and volunteers living in rural areas are 55 percent more likely to be employed.
Health and Wellbeing
A review of recent research by the Corporation for National and Community Service, titled The Health Benefits of Volunteering, cites data from the Americans’ Changing Lives Survey. The report shows that volunteers experience greater life satisfaction and overall better health than non-volunteers. It asserts that the more time older individuals spend volunteering, the more their life satisfaction and health improve. Those who spend about 100 hours per year volunteering show signs of positive health changes. Furthermore, Research by the University of Exeter indicates that volunteers have a greater ability to cope with stress, greater resilience for recovering from health problems, lower rates of depression, and longer, happier lives.
These results are further bolstered by data from the Longitudinal Study of Aging which found that people who volunteer have lower mortality rates than non-volunteers, even when the data is adjusted to exclude physical health factors. According to the study, 16 percent of participants 70 years or older who volunteered in 1984 were less likely to have died by 1988 than people who did not volunteer.
Other studies have found that people who volunteer at younger ages are less likely to suffer from ill health later in life. A comparison of data collected from interviews of women in 1956 and then in 1986 found that those who had volunteer experience from the time they were married until age 55 had greater functional ability than non-volunteers. The volunteers were also more likely to be integrated socially in their communities.
An analysis of adults over the age of 70 who volunteered at least 100 hours during 1993 found that, by the year 2000, had higher levels of functional ability and lower levels of depression and mortality than people who did not volunteer during the same period.
The positive impact on the health of volunteers contributes to an overall positive impact on quality of life. Those who give more of themselves reap the benefits of knowing they are doing good, and many opportunities have a physical component that tell the brain that real work has been done. This also translates to what sociologists call "social integration theory" which seeks to explain how social connections provide meaning in one's life. Social integration is not assimilation. Rather, it is the process by which individuals find a place within a group and peacefully blend with the community. This might help to explain why those who pursue philanthropic endeavors display a higher sense of self-worth. They feel as if their time is well-spent, and they believe they are leaving a good legacy.
The most important thing to realize about volunteering is that spending time to identify your goals and interests helps ensure a richer and more fulfilling volunteer experience. Ask yourself why you want to volunteer. For example, do you want to:
- Make your neighborhood a better place to live
- Learn from people who think about life differently than you
- Try something you've never done before
- See new places and a different way of life
- Make a positive contribution with your hobbies or interests
Essentials for Successful Volunteering
Compassion, humility, an open mind, and a positive attitude ensure a positive volunteer experience. You have the best chance for making a valuable contribution if you:
- Strive to be well-prepared and organized
- Are emotionally stable
- Are a good listener
- Are self-reliant, adaptable and resilient
- Are patient and cooperative
- Have a passion for sharing your knowledge and skills
The Time Commitment
If you are a first time volunteer, short-term assignments will provide the best chance to see if the work is right for you. Short-term volunteering is especially valuable if you can make up for an acute shortage of help by providing expertise not otherwise found at the organization. Keep in mind that short-term commitments are not cost effective for organizations that must make a considerable investment in screening, transporting or housing for their volunteers. When you find the right volunteer program, serving for a longer term gives you the opportunity to develop a higher level of skill and accomplish more.
Finding the Right Opportunity
Your time is your most valuable asset, so it is important that your volunteer position is a good fit. As you investigate opportunities, do not limit yourself to a single organization or a specific type of work. Although an opportunity may look great on paper, the reality can be quite different. Keep a few things in mind when looking for the right community service program:
- Know what is expected.
- Understand the time commitment.
- Visit different organizations.
- Introduce yourself to the staff and fellow volunteers.
- Ask questions to ensure the experience fits your goals, skills, and available time.
- Make sure you can enjoy yourself
Volunteering is the easiest way to make a positive impact in your community. Here are some of the most common opportunities in public health available at the local level:
- At the hospital: Help is always needed in hospitals, and they all welcome volunteers. You could be asked to perform a wide variety of duties, from greeting families to delivering flowers. Most local hospitals could use the help of weekly volunteers to supplement their staffs' duties, while national hospitals, like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, provide opportunities for anyone nationwide to contribute to their work.
- At hospice: Volunteers for hospices are always needed for patients on Medicare and Medicaid, which require volunteers to provide a minimum of 5 percent of patient care hours. Be advised that volunteering for hospice can be an emotionally draining experience, but you may become a very important person a family can rely on. The National Hospice Foundation provides a search tool to find local hospices that may need your time and help.
- As a mentor: Volunteer to make a difference in a child's future. Organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters are great outlets for mentoring. Expect a background check. United Way provides a list of volunteer opportunities in your area on their website.
- At the shelter: It takes a lot of volunteers to operate a local shelter. Consider donating, delivering, serving, or preparing food, or helping with administrative tasks. The Homeless Shelter Directory makes it easy to find a shelter near you that could use an extra pair of hands.
- At school: Teachers are often underpaid, and schools are often understaffed. Volunteers are always needed for fun, rewarding assignments, such as reading to children, chaperoning field trips, or simply helping with lessons. Expect a background check. Communities in Schools works with low-performing schools in 26 states and the District of Columbia to provide them with the resources they need to succeed. You can find which states and schools are part of this program through their state list.
- As a delivery driver: Most communities sponsor a "Meals on Wheels" service, where volunteers deliver meals to the elderly. Offering nutritious meals and companionship to people who are often very lonely is an especially rewarding way to volunteer.
- At the animal shelter: If you love animals, your local animal shelter is always looking for volunteers willing to walk dogs, take care of the animals and help find new homes. The Humane Society makes it easy to find volunteer opportunities in their shelters nationwide.
- On the highway: Check with your state's DOT to learn the requirements for adopting a highway in your area, or you can peruse the official Adopt a Highway website for more information. Typically volunteers work to clean up litter or plant flowers and trees.
- At the community garden: Community gardens offer a bounty of fresh produce, and they are a great way to meet new people and strengthen neighborhood ties.
National and International Opportunities
Compared to volunteering in your community, national and global volunteer opportunities typically require longer time commitments, sometimes up to a year or more. Organizations usually provide a living stipend and may cover travel and other expenses. Be aware that some programs operating on this scale require volunteers to assume some of the costs associated with serving.
Volunteers in national services help millions of vulnerable citizens by doing everything from helping veterans adjust to civilian life to rebuilding communities reeling from natural disasters. A prime example is AmeriCorps, which fields an army of more than 80,000 Americans who offer their services to nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country.
Globally, the Peace Corps offers volunteers with a thirst for adventure a chance to make a difference around the world. Be advised that the decision to volunteer for the Peace Corps involves considerable research and evaluation. In general, volunteer opportunities in the Peace Corps involve education, youth development, health care, community economic development, agriculture and the environment.
In addition to being self-reliant, you need the technical experience and education required by a host country to be selected as a Peace Corps volunteer. Serving also requires additional preparation with language, cross-cultural and project-specific training.
Volunteerism begins at the local level, and most of the good work done by those wanting to help others is coordinated by local organizations or local offices of national organizations. If you have a particular field in mind, it's easy to find the contact information for local coordinators online.
On a national level, the websites listed below can be a good place to start your process of researching, evaluating and selecting the volunteer opportunity that is right for you.
- Big Brothers/Big Sisters: Its mission is to change the lives of children facing adversity for the better with professionally supported one-to-one relationships with adult volunteers.
- Corporation for National and Community Service: The largest grantmaker for service and volunteering in the U.S. The CNCS engages more than 5 million Americans in service through its core programs: Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Social Innovation Fund.
- Habitat for Humanity: An international, non-governmental, nonprofit organization that describes itself as a Christian housing ministry devoted to addressing the problem of poverty housing worldwide.
- HealthCare Volunteer: A nonprofit connecting volunteers interested in health care-related volunteering with opportunities around the world.
- Idealist: A resource for volunteer opportunities, nonprofit jobs, internships and organizations with a mission to facilitate positive social change.
- National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics: organizes free health clinics monthly. Each event provides opportunities for medical and non-medical volunteers, and there is a search function on their main site to find clinics near you that may need help.
- Peace Corps: The Peace Corps sends American volunteers abroad to work at the grassroots level toward sustainable change, with the aim to enrich the lives of both the volunteers and the communities they serve.
- Peterson's: An education resource company offering valuable information about how to connect with volunteer and internship opportunities in public health.
- Points of Light Foundation: An organization dedicated to connecting people with volunteer opportunities that address critical needs in communities.
- United We Serve: United We Serve is an initiative working to expand the impact of existing organizations by engaging new volunteers in their work and encouraging them to develop their own projects.
- Volunteer Base Camp: A resource for global public health volunteer opportunities including educating communities about sanitation, disease prevention, nutrition, first aid and more.
- Volunteermatch.org: A clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities connecting more than 90,000 nonprofit organizations with people who want to help.
- World Endeavors: An organization providing programs to intern, study and volunteer abroad in more than 20 countries around the world, with the emphasis on building meaningful connections between participants and their host communities.