In honor of World Humanitarian Day August 19th, guest post from Up with People President & CEO Dale Penny:
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Ever since President Kennedy issued that call at his inaugural address in 1961 which resulted in the launch of the Peace Corps, Americans and people worldwide have responded by seeking ways to volunteer in service to others. Today thousands of nonprofit organizations (NGO’s) offer opportunities to improve conditions in every corner of the world.
In the U.S. the national service movement was renewed after President Clinton launched AmeriCorps in the early 1990’s. Since then over 800,000 citizens, mostly young people, have served in AmeriCorps related programs and provided over 1 billion hours of service throughout the nation. And that is in the United States alone. That number is multiplied on a global scale.
Through it all, there has been an ongoing debate about who benefits more through the service – those served or the volunteers who serve. The argument began early in the Peace Corps years as returned volunteers spoke with pride of what they had accomplished but almost always ended by saying “but no one got more out of it than I.”
Studies indicate the major value of service to the communities served are: being an extra workforce to support professionals providing needed services e.g. teachers, medical personnel, construction projects, human service workers, land managers, etc. Volunteers help strengthen communities by supporting the social needs that tie communities together.
Those who serve/volunteer report increased civic engagement and commitment to citizenship, development of life skills, understanding and compassion for those in need, increased professional skills that impact their career development and personal fulfillment from giving of oneself to benefit others.
So who benefits more? If we measure the grand sum of all those billions of hours giving to others throughout the world, it is clear that the impact of service programs have provided unquestioned value to lift the quality of life for millions of people in need by preserving the environment, educating children building homes and schools, caring for the sick and strengthening the social fabric.
On an individual scale, however, the life-changing impact on the volunteer is profound. For many, if not most, it ignites a flame of commitment to make a difference in the lives of their fellow citizens that will live with them and help shape their lives forever.
The key to maximizing the benefit for all, however, is to keep the focus on those who are being served. If the volunteers’ motivation is primarily to build their resumes and skills, they will neither give the best to those they are serving nor will they gain the most from the experience. Service is at its core a gift to others. So long as that is the primary goal, both sides will get the most from the service.