Nearly 61 million people in the United States volunteer at least once a year, over a quarter of the national population. The tangible impact they have on their communities can be documented—planted trees, newly painted schools, children in a free tutoring program. The intangible benefits (greener neighborhoods, a brighter learning environment, motivated and successful youth) can be felt. What many don’t consider or measure is the impact of service on the volunteer himself or herself.
APEX, a nonprofit organization in New York City, has provided mentoring and educational services to Asian American youth for sixteen years, largely through the efforts of dedicated volunteers. Trang Le-Chan, MSW, Deputy Director, Director of Programs at APEX, says, “Volunteering with APEX is an interpersonal learning opportunity. Not only do volunteers provide guidance to our youth, but they oftentimes learn a great deal about themselves through their experiences.”
In perhaps the highest testament to what the youth programs can accomplish, many of the mentored youth later become volunteers themselves. “Volunteering with APEX is a great way to give back to the community. Many of us have benefited from the help of others at some point in our lives. Volunteering is the most direct way to help the youngsters who will also benefit from the guidance and support that we provide. Our volunteers see the impact of their personal contribution in the lives of the students that they touch.”
When volunteers are asked for their motivations and rewards, they almost invariably name the satisfaction of having made a difference. “Everyone starts off saying they’re going to change the world, but then we all get caught up with work and real life. I feel that by volunteering, we get to change the world even just a little when we do it,” says Ramon Gil, managing director of communications design company Fresh Concentrate and founder of AAVO (Asian American Volunteers on Meetup.com), a portal for community service opportunities. “They say that everyone needs something to be passionate about, and volunteering, and getting others to volunteer does that for me.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that people in their early twenties are the least likely to volunteer. Some attribute this to the misconception that all the benefits of volunteering are on one side. “I can see why someone starting out on the entry-level rung might not think it’s worth it to volunteer,” says Jared Chang, an attorney. “What they might not realize is what volunteering can do for your career. There’s satisfaction in doing something good for the community, but it’s not just a one-way street. It’s more like an exchange. You give your time and energy to a good cause, and in return you network and make professional contacts.”
He continues, “Volunteering can be as specialized as you want it to be. It’s something you can put on your resume. If you choose your volunteering projects based on your own passions and goals, just like you’d choose a job, it’s a career-builder. Not just in terms of networking, but in the experience and knowledge you gain.”
As an attorney, he often volunteers to give free legal advice to recent immigrants. “That’s the way I can contribute best. I’m useless with kids and painting murals, and I can’t keep mold alive so don’t ask me to plant trees in the park, but I can help someone facing removal proceedings they don’t understand or know how to deal with. I can’t think of a worthier way to use my education.” He quoted John Adams, who said much the same thing in 1761, “To what greater object, to what greater character, can we aspire as lawyers than to assist the helpless and friendless in a worthy cause? I say there is none. To devote your skill and energy to the plight of another, without the promise of a material reward for oneself, is what sets us apart as professionals.”
Aside from the ethics of community service, there is the value of volunteering as professional development. Jenny Lee, a fourth-grade teacher in Brooklyn, supplemented her student-teaching experience in college by volunteering for organizations like America Reads. “It helped me as a teacher,” she said. “It’s one thing to work with kids as a group—of course that’s important for anyone who wants to teach. But you also have to learn to work with kids one-on-one. The best teachers can stand in front of a class of kids and make each one feel special. I think I can do that because I learned to work with kids individually and got to know them. Volunteering with kids one-on-one to help them like reading made me a much better teacher. It also looked great on my resume when I was ready to get my first teaching job.”
Even for professionals well into their careers, volunteering can be a means of professional development. Community service has become embraced as an advancement strategy on the organizational level as well as the individual one. While visibility and reputation are often cited as compelling reasons for corporate philanthropy, there is a reason why employee volunteer programs are often run within the human resources department. Executives surveyed by the Center of Corporate Citizenship find that the skills and experience gained through volunteering reflect a direct bottom-line benefit of employee productivity.
Recruitment and retention are served as well. In a Volunteer IMPACT survey by Deloitte & Touche USA, 62% of the respondents preferred to work for companies that encouraged them to share and develop their skills by working with nonprofit organizations.
In a 1999 survey by the Points of Light Foundation, over eighty percent of responding companies used focused, strategic volunteer programs to support core functions such as public relations and marketing. Over half formally incorporated volunteerism into their overall business plans. “The very for-profit and profitable company I work for sponsors a number of community service initiatives,” says John Lee, a project manager in Queens. “Imagine if every company in the Fortune 500 were that active in the community. There are so many organizations and good causes out there, I can’t imagine that there isn’t something everyone could do. If every company put aside one calendar day for all its employees to volunteer, imagine what could happen.”
But what many volunteer organizations have at heart is the maxim that it only takes one person to make a difference. Ramon Gil has suggestions for getting started on the individual level. “Figure out what really interests you. Is it animals? Is it working with children? Is it your cultural heritage? Then find the organizations that work in those areas and volunteer to do something you enjoy for them (fundraising, outreach, teaching, etc, graphic design, etc.)”
“With me, I volunteer because it’s a way to connect with my heritage,” says one anonymous volunteer. “I like being able to give back to a group I have such direct ties with. As a U.S.-born Korean-American who is very Americanized, I don’t want to lose my connection to Korea entirely. Being active in a Korean church keeps me grounded.” She quipped, “Besides, I meet so many great guys through church work.”
In May, the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans held the 29th Annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Festival, which showcased over a hundred organizations within the Asian American community. There is no shortage of volunteer opportunities for Asian American professionals who would like to contribute their bilingualism, cultural awareness, or simple desire to reach out to other Asian Americans. Le-Chan from APEX says, “The majority of the volunteers wanted to work with APEX because of their personal background and experiences—growing up as an Asian-American. Some wanted to be involved in the community and connecting with other Asian American professionals in New York City. Some were drawn to us because they believe in our mission in serving Asian American youth.”
John Lee mused, “I talked about what might happen if every corporation had a volunteer program. But maybe I wasn’t thinking big enough. Almost three-quarters of the businesses in the U.S. are sole proprietorships, and that’s not including partnerships. That is the bulk of the economy—if all of those people could set aside an hour a week for community service, think what the world could look like.”