The emerging role of volunteerism

May 18, 2012

Take note. Volunteerism is evolving, both in the United States and around the world.

In the US, what was once just a thing you did for your neighbor, your school or your congregation, has become much more formalized.

Some high schools require it for graduation and most colleges consider it a major factor on an application. You can now count volunteer time as experience on your resume. Many of those out of work volunteer to exercise their skills or build up networks. And those building their careers often volunteer to gain experience in a different environment. The New York Times called it a “Gateway to a Career.” It can certainly be a consideration when we hire employees at Amway headquarters, and most of our college interns are seasoned volunteers.

There is even a standardized value placed on volunteer time by the Independent Sector: $21.79. Now nonprofits can even quantify it as the value of a donation. It means more resources are devoted to critical issues, and people can sometimes provide more impact than money alone. In 2010, Amway volunteers logged 1 million volunteer hours. If taken in US value (although many of our hours are global), this equates to more than $20,000,000 in donation value.

We’ve begun to segment the types of volunteerism. There is individual volunteering, like school mentors. Group volunteering takes on projects like building playgrounds and cleaning up beaches. Skill-based brings expertise to improve the effectiveness of a charitable organization. Nonprofit board service means dedicated, strategic support at the leadership level. We exercise every one of these types of volunteering with Amway employees and distributors, and see significant benefits to our employees and to the community.

Globally, volunteerism is picking up the pace. For countries that have traditionally relied on governments to be the sole provider of social services, it is a relatively new concept. Yet it is gaining traction as a way to improve communities and help the disadvantaged, particularly when the economic downturn means cutbacks in government services. In Russia, we’ve had to introduce the concept to Amway distributors, but it’s taken off in a big way from there. In China, where the United Nations says perceptions of volunteerism are advancing rapidly, Amway has built a network of more than 68,000 volunteers – the largest volunteer group in the country, involved in everything from education to disaster relief.

The business community sees only growth in engaging employee volunteers. According to a recent Forbes survey of 311 global executives, most from multibillion-dollar companies, more than two-thirds say that they believe their focus on volunteerism will increase over the next three years and that volunteerism is an essential part of their company’s leadership development strategy. Harvard Business Review also recently acknowledged the important role that volunteerism plays in making corporate social responsibility a focal point for business.

So is volunteering becoming institutionalized? Perhaps. And this many not be a bad thing.

While we find valuable and innovative ways to use our time to help improve the world – and improve ourselves – the hours that won’t get logged are the ones where we help the elderly neighbor next door, or the co-worker who is battling an illness, or the friend who lost their job.

As long as we follow our hearts as much as our strategies, then the changing role of volunteerism will be a very good thing.

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