How to Repair The World and inspire a volunteerism culture

David Eisner, CEO and President of NPO Repair The World, explains how businesses and governments can tap into an undervalued pool of potential volunteers, to celebrate our Special 'Power of Volunteering' Feature, launching in October

How would you define the state of US non-profits today?

US Non Profit Organisations (NPOs) are very robust, making up more than 8 per cent of our gross domestic product, and about 11 per cent of our workforce.

Which do you think are the most valuable demographics in volunteering?

We have 65 million Americans that volunteer every year and they range across the spectrum. The “Baby Boomers” are at a stage in life when they’re thinking of moving from success to significance, and also emerging is the millennial generation. Millennials are part of perhaps the largest, most diverse generation to ever place driving social change at the top of what they want to accomplish out of life.

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Are there any campaigns you have seen make a tangible change? 

Over the last 20 years volunteering has emerged less as something nice to do, and more as something necessary for organisations to achieve. The Red Cross do exceptional work with engaging and training millions of volunteers from around the world. They’ve created a huge influx of volunteers filling critical roles in disaster preparedness and response. On a government level, full time service participants have also proven to be influential recruiters and trainers for volunteers. After hurricane Katrina, a few thousand AmeriCorps members were able to engage over 1.5m volunteers in a relatively short time.

People don’t just mindlessly help, they learn to understand why their help is needed, and the impacts this has on peoples’ lives

David Eisner, CEO and President of Repair The World

How can these volunteers be encouraged to commit to work?

A third of volunteers do not return the following year because they don’t feel like they’re making a difference. At Repair The World we focus on ensuring that their service is meaningful, and this is done in two ways. Firstly by gearing work towards having an impact, and secondly, by connecting direct service to contextual education and reflection. People don’t just mindlessly help, they learn to understand why their help is needed, and the impacts this has on peoples’ lives. It allows for personal reflection because volunteers then think about what helping means to them personally. We want meaningful service to not only have a social impact, but also a transformative impact on those volunteering.

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Can you tell us about meaningful services that people may not know about?

Across the world there is an increasing need and desire to better engage our civic force, and this idea of civic engagement should not be separate from the idea of volunteering.

What people don’t necessarily realise is that, while powerful volunteer work can involve working in challenging fields like helping domestic abuse victims, or children in the foster care system, there are also lot of organisations that do equally meaningful work that requires less time intensive commitment. Take urban gardening, there are farms doing wonderful work growing organic produce for marginalised and impoverished communities, which need volunteers to help simply by planting or harvesting. Even if people only have a few hours to devote, having a small role in a larger sustained effort can make a real difference.