When we contemplate the advantages of volunteering, our minds typically drift towards well-established societal benefits such as aiding the homeless, providing food for the hungry, or supporting disadvantaged youth.
But did you know the benefits of volunteering reach far beyond these commendable acts of kindness?
Studies reveal that volunteering can cultivate more engaged citizens.
Today, we'll delve into this fascinating correlation between volunteering and civic engagement.
What Is an Engaged Citizen?
Engaged citizens are individuals who actively participate in nurturing their vision of societal well-being. This active participation manifests through community service, active voting, comprehensive understanding of civic life, and leading initiatives to alleviate social problems. Engaged citizens possess a deep comprehension of societal issues and their origins. Through social networks, they can devise strategies to implement meaningful change.
How Volunteering Shapes Engaged Citizens
The Points of Light study, “Social Impact of Volunteerism,” delineates how regular volunteering knits a social fabric, laying the groundwork for positive change. Volunteering immerses individuals in social issues, connecting them to people they might not meet otherwise. As they face the harsh realities of societal problems, volunteers can identify gaps, construct bridges, and foster a cohesive community rooted in trust.
The experience of volunteering develops crucial qualities in individuals. Here are some traits that closely mirror those of an engaged citizen:
- Belief in the importance of community involvement: A study published in the American Education Research Journal found that students who regularly volunteer in high school are more likely to continue volunteering as adults. The authors surmise that this is because volunteering helps to shape adolescents’ identities; that is, as adolescents volunteer and understand the scope of social problems, “they come to see themselves as persons capable of contributing to the common good.” A 2008 study of AmeriCorps revealed similar findings, suggesting that AmeriCorps volunteers later become regular actors in civic life as voters, jurors, and leaders working for social change.
Understanding Community Needs: Regular volunteers develop deep social ties with their communities. This bond provides them with a thorough understanding of the challenges the community encounters. In her article, “Giving and Volunteering as Distinct Forms of Civic Engagement,” Keely S. Jones writes, “Volunteering induces people to participate more frequently in public concerns, exposes them to a greater variety of shared problems, and consequently encourages greater public deliberation of a wider range of collective issues.”
Leadership Skills: Volunteering encourages people to utilize civic resources to assist needy causes, thereby boosting their confidence in working with governmental agencies to address societal needs. Also, research behind the Ready-Set-Go! initiative suggests that when adolescents become involved in volunteering, they start making decisions about how to solve community problems. Practicing such problem-solving skills at a young age, combined with insights gained through service, leads to confident leaders who believe they can make a difference in their communities.
Setting the Stage for Lifelong Volunteers
Volunteers become engaged citizens because their personal experiences with social problems give them the confidence and tools to do more. Such outcomes present a massive resource to make a real difference, so it is essential to identify steps to maximize this resource’s potential.
Role Modeling: Parents and educators can inspire children and teenagers to volunteer by modeling and emphasizing its social values. Allowing young volunteers to make decisions independently fosters a sense of ownership, boosting their confidence and providing valuable learning experiences while also instilling compassion and a sense of civic responsibility.
- Education, Service, and Reflection: Studies show that volunteering which involves learning, planning, and reflection (i.e., Service learning), makes volunteers almost three times as likely to believe they have made a difference and volunteer again. Lewis University’s Laura Wilmarth encourages educators to provide “disruptive community experiences” through volunteer work. Such experiences challenge students to learn from differences, reflect on their own fortunes, and determine ways to mobilize others for change. This reflection, she says, is essential to creating engaged citizens.
- Building Strong Connections: People are motivated to volunteer by close friends, colleagues, and relatives. In fact, studies show that volunteers are moved to serve more often because a family member, colleague, or friend invited them, not because the cause itself was so moving. So, volunteers should remember that by inviting a friend or family member to join them, they are potentially galvanizing a force of lifetime volunteers.
Volunteering has often been lauded as “the essential act of citizenship.” Given its potential to mold individuals into proactive contributors to society, the importance of encouraging and supporting volunteers can't be overstated.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2017 and has been completely revamped for accuracy and comprehensiveness.