The true impact of volunteering

Volunteering spans diverse spheres from mega-events to humanitarian work. But are its gains purely economic, or does society benefit in other ways too? 

Books are portals to exciting new worlds and transport readers regardless of their culture, gender or socio-economic background – a neat parallel for volunteerism.

“Anyone who embraces the power of the written and spoken word is open to new ideas, and has a thirst for knowledge,” says Yvette Judge, who first volunteered at Emirates Airline Festival of Literature while working as a school librarian.

“Empathy is one of the major outcomes of reading diversely, and this is crucial when dealing with so many people.”

Judge now oversees hundreds of volunteers in her capacity as Assistant Director of an incredibly diverse event, which attracts storytellers from all over the world to barter what she calls an “exchange of ideas”.

Of course ideas, alongside social cohesion and personal development, fall into the bracket of intangible “soft” benefits. But the perceived “softness” of these benefits is ripe for a second look. In a 2015 UN Report, State of the World’s Volunteerism, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist Andy Haldane estimated that volunteers globally was fast approaching one billion – and that if “Volunteerland” were a country, only China would have a larger working-age population.

Army of altruists

Dr. S Mark Pancer is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario and the author of The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement. He believes that the economic benefits of volunteering include relieving pressure from the state and helping to develop the skills of volunteers to make them employable and raise their income bracket.

“For many years, I have been involved in a programme called Better Beginnings, Better Futures,” he says. “This programme enlists community volunteers from economically deprived neighbourhoods to help provide programmes for young children in their community. These volunteers, many of whom were unemployed, learned many new skills, which helped them get well-paying jobs.”

These impressive fiscal case studies are often ignored by economists unable to include unpaid work in GDP figures. The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project made an attempt in its landmark research study, completed between 1995 and 2000. It found that in 36 countries, volunteers comprised 44 per cent of the workforce of civil society organisations – the equivalent of 20.8 million full-time workers. Using a “replacement cost” approach, it calculated the economic contribution of volunteers in the 36 countries to be US$400bn annually. This represented, on average, 1.1 per cent of GDP in these countries.

Haldane’s recent BBC Radio 4 programme Volunteer Nation recognises the value of the UK’s “army of altruists” regardless, citing 4.4 billion hours of work arranged through official charities per year – the equivalent of almost 10 per cent of paid hours worked in the UK. What’s more, volunteering not only triggers economic but private and social advantages, he says.

If monetising a social phenomenon is tricky, so too is valuing volunteering beyond finance. It is necessary, however, says Dr Eric Kim, a Research Fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, whose research finds that people who volunteer spend 38 per cent less time in hospital.

“Volunteering has been shown to increase a sense of purpose in life, which has been shown to predict a host of better healthoutcomes, including a reduced risk of  heart attacks and strokes for a variety of reasons, including an increased will to live,” he says. “Volunteers can also find social and psychological support, which helps reduce stress and the harmful effects of loneliness.”

What volunteers deny themselves – because they don’t want to seem selfish – is how can they benefit from this. What better way to grow yourself, while helping others?

Tuan Nguyen, Vietnamese-Canadian philanthropist and entrepreneur

But does it make a difference that volunteers have different motives? If people volunteer for self-oriented reasons such as “I need to get away from my problems”, says Kim, then it is not associated with the same health benefits as people who volunteer for more outward reasons, such as having compassion for others.

“Hence, people may have to volunteer for the right reasons in order for the health benefits of volunteering to show up,” although more research is needed to clarify this, he says.

The United Nations memorably said in 2011 at the launch of its first-ever State of the World’s Volunteerism Report that volunteering does not only unite communities, but is one of the clearest signs of solidarity in action, especially in former conflict zones. Volunteers recognise that their engagement is not a condescending act of charity, but rather an expression of reciprocity, said Deputy Secretary- General Asha-Rose Migiro.

In countries such as Colombia, for example, the volunteer-based network Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres (Women’s Peaceful Path) opens doors for women to play an active role in the peace-building process. In East Asia, World Friends Korea dispatches more than 3,000 volunteers to developing nations every year.

Dr Kim articulates these benefits as a “triple win” for society: enhanced social cohesion, improved health and reduction in national healthcare costs. His research into a previously unvisited hypothesis – that volunteering is associated with patterns of healthcare use – raises the question of whether volunteering may be the solution to keeping an expensive, ageing population healthy.

This means we need to be altruistic in order to live longer, and increased “bold” volunteering is definitely one of the many solutions that we will need to successfully transition into a rapidly aging society, says Kim. Indeed, volunteering may also be a costeffective way for future generations of bright people to gain skills and experience without having to follow traditional courses of education, agrees Judge.

“Young volunteers gain a wealth of experience in dealing with situations that they can include on their CV, and gain confidence in their own abilities. Initially, they may be volunteering to gain community service hours for their academic profile, but most discover that they really enjoy what they are doing, are motivated and come away with a huge sense of satisfaction at having made a major event run efficiently and successfully,” she says.

Amal Al Kuwaiti and Wafa Al Katheeri experienced this kind of personal development as UAE volunteers at Expo Milano 2015, organised through the Emirates Foundation’s Takatof programme. “I used to be very quiet but when I joined Takatof, I became involved in many social events, and had to speak my mind and give my opinion in many decisions,” says Al Kuwaiti. “Volunteering means a lot to me.”

Tuan Nguyen, a Vietnamese- Canadian philanthropist and entrepreneur, goes one step further in his popular TEDx talk, to argue that volunteerism is the best platform for professional development because it involves starting powerful, diverse networks from scratch.

Nguyen tells the story of his friend, who founded a weekly mountain biking group to raise money for his wife’s cancer treatment. The event evolved week by week to attract hundreds of cyclists, one of whom was a vice president of a technology company who offered to double the founder’s donations and give him a job.

“Volunteerism makes me a stronger professional,” says Nguyen. “We can all make a difference even with the tiniest event. What volunteers deny themselves – because they don’t want to seem selfish – is how they can benefit from this. What better way to grow yourself, while helping others?”

Professional and personal growth

He continues: “I encourage all of you to move forward and while creating this idea, set some goals for yourself. You learn gratitude, passion, creativity, efficiency to maximise your resources to get the most funds for charity and become more courageous. Why don’t we make volunteerism a part of professional development?”

Richard Dictus, Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers Programme, agrees. “Volunteerism is a global force for change,” he says. The UN has recently launched an online service that swaps skills with deserving recipients, in areas such as writing and editing; art and design; translation; technology development; community organising; teaching and training; project development and management; and leadership and strategy – all valuable experience that can be used to build a volunteer’s CV.

Judge is a case study in how volunteering can build bridges to employment, and says. “Apart from my own transition from volunteer to full-time team member, we have many members of staff who started as volunteers. And there are just some skills and experiences that cannot be found through a book but that can be found through volunteering.

“The main one is the immense satisfaction from being part of something big, and knowing you helped so many people have a wonderful time. Every person plays their part, and the success stories would not be possible without everyone giving 100 per cent to the project.

Volunteers should hold on to a sense of personal pride that they have been part of something inspirational.”