Volunteer. It’s Good for You, Too.

When we volunteer to help others, we are driven by a desire to improve the lives of those we serve. We may be less aware of the benefits we receive in the exchange, but they are every bit as real. In fact, studies show that volunteers actually benefit more from their acts of service than those on the receiving end.

Research from the last two decades indicates that volunteers experience lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer. The findings reveal not just a relationship between volunteering and better health, but direct cause: volunteering actually contributes to better physical and mental health, personal fulfillment, and sense of purpose. Even better news: Experts say these benefits appear to kick in after age 40.

Being of service to others, including complete strangers, has been a cornerstone of American values throughout our history. The French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville was so struck by the spirit of volunteerism when visiting the United States in 1832 that he wrote extensively about it in his book Democracy in America.

Tocqueville and many others have suggested that democracy in the U.S. owes its very success to philanthropy and volunteerism, which promote the common good of all people, not just the interests of an aristocracy.

This is heady stuff. Every time we step up as a volunteer, we help our democracy thrive. We are exercising our freedom to create the society we want by advancing the causes that are important to us. And we are keeping taxes lower. (That’s right: By providing a service to those in need, we relieve the government of that role, thereby reducing the need to raise tax dollars.)

Although our volunteer work is unpaid, it has a tremendous economic impact. According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, a federal agency, 62.6 million people volunteered 7.8 billion hours in the U.S. in 2015, producing an estimated economic value of $184 billion. That’s more than the GDP of three-quarters of the countries on the planet!

Americans have always volunteered, but each generation approaches it differently. Boomers, now seeking to enrich their retirement experience through community service, are pursuing different volunteer experiences than their parents did, says Patrick Tefft, volunteer services coordinator for the City of Kirkland.

While volunteers from the Silent Generation would show up every week without fail, and trek through two miles in the snow (up hill, each way!) just to stuff envelopes or do data entry, many Boomers are eager to find higher-level volunteer assignments that put their intellect and professional skills to use.

“Baby Boomers are looking for volunteer engagement that is self-actualized,” says Tefft. “They often want project-based, consulting work with a medium-term commitment.”

This generation is less interested in showing up every week and doing basic tasks, he says, so charitable organizations, particularly those that have relied on that kind of traditional volunteer, are scrambling to adapt. On the other hand, organizations that are seeking skilled volunteers—or are at least open-minded when they show up—are reaping the benefits.

Tefft gives an example of a volunteer at Sound Generations (formerly Senior Services) who had extensive experience in sales and was an expert in price modeling. With the green light from agency leadership, the volunteer conducted a business analysis and determined that the agency was undercharging the fee paid by other organizations across the country to adopt Senior Services’ proven model. “This consultant helped the agency realize it was undervaluing the service from a sustainability standpoint,” Tefft says. “It was a type of acumen that the agency didn’t have, but leadership was receptive to it, which is key.”

Today’s retirees come with talents and gifts and they want to have those gifts recognized, says Janice Jaworski, a long-time director of volunteer programs. Jaworski tells of a retired business professional with experience in computer programming. The woman started volunteering at one agency answering the phones, because that’s what the agency needed, but she didn’t feel she was using her gifts. She ended up volunteering for a theater group and overseeing the agency’s entire volunteer and administrative functions. She even upgraded the computer program for the theater’s gift shop.

This trend toward the “volunteer consultant” is not absolute, Tefft notes. For every volunteer seeking a high-level role, there is someone who just wants to drive people to their appointments. And after decades of hard work, many people are happy to give up meetings and not have decisions to make.

But the move toward higher engagement is an exciting trend, he says, adding, “It is meeting volunteers where they are at and capitalizing on their life experience.”

Teri Thomson Randall is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker residing in Seattle. Her writing experience spans the arts and sciences, including staff writing positions at the Journal of the American Medical Association and Pasatiempo, the weekly arts magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican. She holds graduate degrees in microbiology, science communication, and film production.

Get involved

April 23-29 is National Volunteer Week, a time to inspire, recognize, and encourage people to seek out imaginative ways to engage in their communities. Set some time aside this week to imagine new ways to be of service—then take action!

Seeking the perfect fit for your skills and interests? Several online resources help you research volunteer opportunities in your community:

Volunteermatch.org, a national website, matches local nonprofits with volunteers.

United Way chapters throughout Western Washington also list volunteer opportunities throughout the community. Search for your county chapter’s website and click on the “Volunteer” or “Get Involved” tab.


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