Research has shown that while over 90% of us want to volunteer, only 1 out of 4 Americans actually do. Did you know there is a relationship between volunteering and improved physical health and cognitive function? Research also shows that volunteers report elevated mood and less depression, and that volunteers report increased social interactions and social support, better relationship quality, and decreased loneliness. So if most of us want to volunteer, and we believe it is good for us, why aren’t all of us volunteering? Research has found 3 common barriers:
“I don’t have enough time and volunteer schedules are too inflexible”
The most common reason for not volunteering is lack of free time (about half of Americans cite this as the main reason), and another common reason is that the volunteer schedules and commitments are too inflexible. Which is interesting because retirees (who presumably have enough time) do not volunteer at higher rates than employees, and people ages 35 to 44 (those most likely to have young children at home and be employed) actually volunteer at slightly higher rates.
One solution is to understand about “volunteering inertia”, which is basically the habit we create by volunteering or not volunteering. Research shows people who volunteer before retirement are more likely to volunteer in retirement (75%). In contrast, only about a third of retirees who did not volunteer while working begin to volunteer in retirement. This suggests there is a “sweet spot” for volunteer recruitment in the years prior to retirement.
Another possible solution is to make volunteering more accessible and automatic. If working parents are volunteering, is most likely at their kids’ schools, which is a location they are already frequenting daily. Employers could encourage volunteerism on-site or in a proximate location. Organizations could be more flexible in the way they use volunteer work, including work that could be done at home, or during evening or weekend hours.
“I don’t have enough information and most volunteer roles aren’t interesting”
Another very common reason is that people don’t have information about where to volunteer, or if they do, the jobs are not meaningful or purposeful. While motivation to volunteer can vary by age, with younger volunteers more motivated by future preparation (such as increasing skills, knowledge, and advancing careers) and older volunteers more likely to cite generativity as a reason for volunteering, most people are motivated to volunteer by personal gratification and having a meaningful experience.
A solution would be for organizations who utilize volunteers to make sure they are matching the skills and experience of their volunteers to the roles they have available. Making copies and coffee are certainly not meaningful to most. Some organizations have a short interview process where they discuss the background of the potential volunteer to closely match it to the needs they have.
The Stanford Center on Longevity produced a report on ways to support intergenerational volunteerism, which included five best-practices strategies. In addition, there are several websites that help individuals find volunteer roles in their area and interest. Yet many individuals still don’t know about these websites that can help access meaningful volunteer roles more adeptly.
“No one asked me to”
One out of 4 people say they don’t volunteer because no one asked them to; so let’s ask! Research shows the organizations that are most successful at recruiting and retaining volunteers have a full-time paid volunteer coordinator. This is the person who invites them to be a volunteer and oversees them throughout the application and training process as well as connects with them routinely during their tenure as a volunteer. Volunteers want to feel included in the goals of the organization, and that their work (even if unpaid) is valued and appreciated.
Employers and schools can help with asking as well. High schools and colleges are already requiring volunteer service, and many employers are offering paid time off to volunteer or including it as a part of their wellness plans.
Creating a new social norm of volunteering
Potential for increasing volunteerism is high if we are able to address these common barriers. By reducing these barriers, we can create a new social norm of volunteering throughout one’s life; where it is expected that everyone volunteers starting from school age and throughout old age. In the pre-retirement years, employers could encourage increasing volunteer hours as they slowly decrease their work hours, so that retirees would be fully integrated into their meaningful volunteer roles in a gradual and seamless transition. The Stanford Center on Longevity is piloting a volunteer project with Santa Clara County. Read more here: http://longevity3.stanford.edu/santa-clara-county-volunteering-survey/