Creating job opportunities through volunteering

When we concentrate on helping others and taking constructive action, our own problems no longer occupy center stage in our lives. The way out of our problems is with and through others.

by Steve Weitzenkorn, Ph.D. — 

In good economic times, the volunteer rate in America remains reasonably steady; however, it has declined since its peak prior to the recession. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the volunteer rate from 2003 through 2005, when the economy was strong and the unemployment rate low, was 28.8 percent of all U.S. residents, or approximately 65.4 million volunteers.

In 2009, the volunteer rate was 26.8 percent, a two-point drop, which means that 7 percent fewer people are volunteering now than before. The number of volunteer hours also fell from its high in 2004 of 37.9 hours per resident, per year, to 34.2 hours in 2009, a 9 percent drop.

These data mean that charitable organizations and nonprofits have been hit with a double whammy. In addition to the lower amount of volunteerism, the Giving USA Foundation and its research partner, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, estimate that donations fell by an estimated 3.6 percent in 2009 from the 2008 level. They also report that giving to human service organizations fell by 13.5 percent. Ironically, the sector that has experienced the greatest increase in demand for its services has suffered the greatest decrease in donations.

The hardship of being unemployed creates anxiety and stress on individuals and their families. Financial challenges and debt begin to mount, along with self-doubt. The experience of being unemployed, especially for a long period of time, diminishes self-esteem and self-worth. These burdens can be immobilizing for many people.

For example, the American Time Use Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, reveals that the average unemployed American spends only 30 minutes per day looking for a job, and that only one in six actually looks for a job in any given day. It takes that average unemployed American 33 weeks to find a new job.

Currently, the unemployment rate in the U.S. is 9.8 percent and has been 9.6 percent or higher for more than a year. When you include people who are no longer even looking for employment, the rate is much higher. For example, the unemployment rate in California is 22 percent.

Although a significantly larger pool of people is now available to volunteer than in previous times, the volunteer rate has actually declined. Yet, work of any kind, whether for a salary or as a volunteer, is beneficial because it enhances feelings of self-worth and strengthens self-esteem.

One way we can help ourselves maintain or enhance our dignity and pride, especially in personally troubling times, is by reaching out to assist others. Doing so makes us feel less isolated and better about ourselves because we are giving back and contributing something valuable.

Dr. Carl Menninger, founder of the Menninger Institute, when asked what he would do if he felt a nervous breakdown overcoming him, replied, “Go across the street and help another person.” Menninger recognized that our own mental health, identity and confidence are directly tied to our relationship with others and our ability to contribute to a greater good.

When we concentrate on helping others and taking constructive action, our own problems no longer occupy center stage in our lives. The way out of our problems is with and through others. That is one of the secrets to living a fulfilling and satisfying life.

There are even more tangible benefits to volunteering. Volunteers are engaged with other people, including organizational staff and lay leaders. These people know other people, which, in turn, creates additional opportunities to connect with others. They may also have relationships with other organizations and businesses. By creating opportunities for these new contacts to get to know you and see what you can do, you can generate referrals and introductions to prospective employers or people in positions to help further. This is a great way to expand your network and uncover job opportunities that might have been otherwise unknown or inaccessible.

Volunteering facilitates serendipity. When we put ourselves in places where possibilities and opportunities are more likely to intersect with our activities, we become well positioned for fortunate coincidences. By widening our own circle and working with others as a volunteer, we increase the probability that serendipity will strike.

Data from the U.S. Labor Department, provided to The New York Times in December 2010, shows that people “out of work fewer than five weeks are more than three times as likely to find a job in the coming month than people who have been out of work for over a year.” There are many reasons for this, one of which is a concern that the longer-term unemployed have been inactive and their skills may be rusty.

Imagine how impressive it would be to reply to the question, “What have you been doing?” by honestly saying, “I have been incredibly busy engaged in productive and meaningful work as a volunteer. This has allowed me to apply my skills, keep them sharp, learn and grow, help others and contribute to a greater good. I am not earning money like I need to, but the work is very fulfilling, and I plan to stay involved in it even after I land a new job.” Prospective employers and others who can help along the way will see that you have remained productive and are involved in constructive activities.

Perhaps the best gift we can give to ourselves is the gift of ourselves. By extending ourselves and contributing to a greater good, we enrich our own lives and the lives of others in need.


Steve Weitzenkorn, Ph.D., is an experienced business and nonprofit advisor, concentrating on the people side of organizational development, strategy formation and change. He is the co-author of Find Fulfill Flourish, about how to live a more meaningful life. or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 30, Number 2, April/May 2011.

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