Why do we volunteer?

Why is volunteering important? What is it about doing something good for someone else without compensation that has drawn the attention and investment of multiple sectors? Governments, corporations, non-governmental organizations, academia, and even noble families have looked to volunteering for solutions to problems that have otherwise gone unsolved. Why is our hope placed here?


By Chris Jarvis

Without question, the contribution of time and other resources to charities and their communities is profoundly valuable. Without these contributions, our world would have a grave deficit of social, human, and physical capital. But the power of volunteering lies in more than its utilitarian application. As passionate volunteers will profess, it is not the transaction that motivates them; rather, it is the transformation that occurs in their own lives. At a more clinical level, this occurrence can be referred to as the potential to generate transformative value.

What is transformative value?

Transformative value reaches beyond the immediate contexts and circumstances of volunteers and the communities they serve. Rather than exchanging time or resources for the reward of making a difference, we bring ourselves to a space where we are given the potential to be made different. That “space” can take on a variety of forms. Sometimes we experience it the same as we would any other day, but other times we are prepared to allow volunteering to make us vulnerable. It’s in those times that we find ourselves moved – sometimes even to tears. Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner described it like this:

You never know what may cause tears. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high-school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, they are speaking to you the mystery of where you have come from and summoning you to where you should go to next.

Volunteering, particularly when it allows participants to come face to face with the person who benefits from their contribution, may unexpectedly cause an emotional response. This response can come from being overwhelmed by the need in front of us, but more often than not, it comes from the change we feel taking place within us, the gradual undoing of our preconceived notions of people and society. Change is never guaranteed and it certainly cannot be forced. But typically when the specific volunteering experience we participate with is set up as transformative space, three core elements will occur:

  1. Disruption
    Volunteers will be ushered into an understanding of the greater purpose behind their work, which will cause the assumptions they arrived with to be disrupted.
  2. Expanded framework
    When their assumptions are disrupted, volunteers will do their work with an expanded frame of reference, resulting in an experience that is different from what they expected.
  3. Reflection
    Volunteers will be guided through critical reflection that will shape their sense-making process and permanently influence their attitudes and behaviors.

Essentially, transformative value generates empathy. As psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman says: “Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.”

The unique role of corporations

Most people do not formally volunteer. Many who volunteer for the first time this year will do so through their places of work. Corporations are the gatekeepers to transformation, to empathy creation, to improving human lives globally. This is a unique, historic, and powerful position – and frankly, companies need help knowing what to do with this enormous and unprecedented responsibility.

A global initiative – IMPACT 2030

Ultimately, companies will accomplish their heavy mandate better by tackling it together, through multi-sector collaboration. IMPACT 2030 presents that opportunity for collaboration. It is a business led coalition that mobilizes corporate volunteers to contribute to the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By aligning the volunteer activities of businesses around the world with the SDGs, IMPACT 2030 equips corporations with resources to build and expand their current programs, while increasing the impact of the SDGs.

Fundamentally, IMPACT 2030 is a movement. It represents the belief that corporate volunteering — when used in concert with the United Nations, peer companies, government, academia, and civil society — is a powerful tool to accelerate the global achievement of the SDGs and inspire the private sector to positive action. If employees are supported as the primary actors in creating change, IMPACT 2030 will prove to be transformative at a global level.

More about IMPACT 2030

IMPACT 2030 was launched in 2010 by Realized Worth in partnership with the United Nations Office of Partnerships. The initiative is a collaboration of companies around the world, of all sizes, to mobilize their employees in volunteer efforts towards the achievement of the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals that will be announced in September of 2015.

IMPACT 2030 will:

  • raise awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals to employees around the world;
  • convene companies, the United Nations, governments, bilateral and multilateral agencies and civil society organizations to initiate joint commitments and actions;
  • develop a framework for corporate volunteering that will establish standards, protocols and principles across companies, industries and regions aligned with the SDGs;
  • create and maintain the global diversity of IMPACT 2030 through multi-sector regional voice forums;
  • develop a yearly evidence based research study that tracks both the growing impact and the collective results of the IMPACT 2030 network on the development agenda;
  • advocate as appropriate for policy changes to aid in the facilitation of community based and cross-border volunteering around the world.

Read more about our commitment here.

Getting involved

Companies of all sizes and geographic locations are invited to become an IMPACT 2030 Founding or Collaborating Partner. Companies can also join other stakeholders, including civil society, governments, philanthropic organizations, and academic institutions, by participating in the IMPACT 2030 network. You can read more here or contact us here to set up a phone call. We would welcome a conversation with you.

Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via contact@realizedworth.com. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Chris Jarvis
Realized Worth Co-Founder
Connect with Chris on LinkedIn
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