Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” Volunteering has become a necessity to the health and well-being of our nation and our community. Each April, during National Volunteer Week, nonprofit organizations and social service groups take time to recognize how critical volunteers are to their daily operations and the success of their organizations.
But who are these volunteers? According the U.S. Census Bureau and the Corporation for National Community Service, more than 60 million people volunteered through or for an organization in 2007, representing more than 26 percent of the United States population, a 30-year high. In Illinois, 2.75 million volunteers contributed more than 300 million hours of community service.
Citizens of all ages, backgrounds and abilities are donating their time to local nonprofit organizations, schools, churches and hospitals in an effort to improve their communities and create lasting change. Whether it is afterschool tutoring, weekend neighborhood clean-ups or assisting disaster victims, volunteering is key to reducing poverty, crime and homelessness while increasing literacy rates and maintaining healthy lifestyles.
Today’s growth in volunteer rates is primarily driven by three age groups: older teenagers from 16 to 19; the baby boom generation of adults, ages 45 to 65; and adults 65 and over. Our youth are one of the principal driving forces behind the steady increases in volunteer rates. Not only are today’s youth more engaged themselves, they are also affecting the volunteer hours being contributed by parents as they are exposed to more volunteer opportunities through schools and extracurricular activities. In addition, since older Americans are living longer and are more financially secure, they are seeking out ways to remain active and give back to their communities.
In Illinois, the top three activities in which volunteers engage are fundraising, preparing and serving food, and tutoring or teaching. While women tend to volunteer more than men in these areas, male volunteers are more likely to engage in general labor or supervise youth sports teams. In 2007, the top three ways to find volunteer opportunities in Illinois were through religious affiliations, educational or youth services, and social service agencies. More than 44 percent of volunteers became involved with their primary volunteer effort after being asked to volunteer by someone within the organization, while 40 percent became involved on their own as they sought out a volunteer opportunity they were interested in supporting.
Volunteering not only provides satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment that we are making a difference by helping people in our community, it also provides additional health and social benefits. Research consistently shows that when we volunteer, especially those 65 years and older, we lead healthier lives than those who do not engage in their communities. This includes lower mortality rates and lower rates of depression later in life, as volunteering provides social interaction.
As we celebrate National Volunteer Week, it is a great time to recognize that volunteerism is essential to providing quality social services to the community. Successful volunteer programs demonstrate our nonprofit organizations’ abilities to operate more efficiently while creating positive impact on our community’s future. IBI