When we think of the benefits of volunteering, we commonly think of traditional social values, like helping the homeless, feeding the hungry, and engaging disadvantaged youth.
But did you know that the benefits of volunteering reach even farther? In fact, they do.
Studies show that volunteering can lead to more engaged citizens.
Let’s examine how:
What Is an Engaged Citizen?
Engaged citizens are commonly understood as those who actively participate in cultivating their “vision of societal well being.” Active participation includes being involved in community service, voting, learning about civic life, and taking a lead in identifying and ameliorating social ills. Engaged citizens have a keen understanding of social problems and how they arose. With the help of social connections, they can develop strategies to effect change.
Key Factors that Turn Volunteers into Engaged Citizens
The Points of Light study, “Social Impact of Volunteerism,” shows how regular volunteering weaves a social fabric that sets the stage for positive change to take place. Volunteering engages people in social issues, and it connects volunteers to people they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. Embedded in the plight of social woes, volunteers identify gaps, build bridges, and nurture a cohesive community built on trust.
Such a role develops important qualities in volunteers, which closely mirror the qualities of an engaged citizen.
- Belief in the importance of community involvement: A study published in the American Education Research Journal found that those who volunteer regularly in high school are more likely to volunteer 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 strong social ties with the communities they serve. Such relationships yield an in-depth understanding of problems the community faces. 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 challenges people to help needy causes by utilizing civic resources. As a result, volunteers become more confident networking with government offices to address social 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 should set the example, and expose children to volunteering. Acquainting children and teenagers with the social values of volunteering will instill compassion and a sense of civic responsibility. Adults should also allow teen volunteers to make decisions and take action on their own, which will give them a sense of ownership. Their successes will build confidence, and mistakes will offer valuable learning experiences.
- 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.
- Family ties: 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.
Just think of the potential that each community, each organization, and each individual has to take direct action in improving the world. All things considered, it is no wonder that volunteering has been called “the essential act of citizenship.”