Why Don’t We Volunteer?

Charitable societies and associations born during the depression years of the 1930s are losing their appeal with our generation. We aren’t interested in having bake sales and sending checks.

We want to give our own energy and personal resources directly to those in need. We don’t want to hand our money over to towering bureaucracies. We would rather donate time in volunteerism.

We’re a complex generation with some significant strengths and weaknesses. One of our greatest attributes is our energy for and interest in helping others.

Yet, according to a 2003 Barna Research Group study, only 24 percent of Gen-Xers (ages 20-38) volunteered at a nonprofit other than a church in the week prior to the study, compared with 31 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 39-57) and 27 percent of Elders (ages 58+).

The time factor:

What’s the explanation for our low rate? Perhaps the most frequently noted problem is the simple lack of time we have to consistently donate in service.

Most twentysomethings are busy people—we want to do it all, so we fill our hyper-schedules with demanding careers, hobbies, social activities and diversions of all sorts.

When all is said and done, we have very little time to spare, so while we still feel the call to serve, we are at a loss for how to fit this into our daily lives.

We do know one thing for certain—we surely don’t want to join the kind of bureaucratic charitable organizations that require spending more time in planning meetings than engaging in hands-on service of those in need.

Because of our sparse spare time, busy twentysomethings who want to volunteer gravitate toward what has been called “episodic volunteering”—short, power-packed service projects that fit into our schedules and allow us the kinds of hands-on experiences we are looking for.

The larger issues:

But there are larger, deeper issues complicating the matter of volunteerism among young adults—issues that need to be understood if service organizations, and would-be volunteers themselves, want to better serve those in need.

Many of us in our 20s have been taught that it is good to help the poor, the sick, the suffering—but we aren’t exactly sure, on a fundamental level, why we should volunteer, how we should volunteer or what volunteering will accomplish.

It is the mixed-up idealism of the popular desire to “save the world” that gets us into trouble in the first place, causing our efforts to shipwreck. “Idealism is the thought that if only this happens, then everything will be right with the world”

Going grassroots:

Because of this attitude, smaller organizations that maintain a sort of grassroots ruggedness are more likely to attract younger volunteers. These locally-based organizations appeal to twentysomethings because they allow us cynical idealists to see that our work impacts people’s lives in a genuine way.

Grassroots organizations like Beacon of Hope Uganda have a different approach to serving those in need than the more bureaucratic charitable organizations.

Volunteer turnover:

But no matter how successful organizations like Beacon of Hope Uganda are at attracting young volunteers, they all face a significant problem—the lack of so-called “volunteer retention.”

Volunteer commitment (or lack thereof) is a problem that all organizations struggle with—only a handful have stuck with Beacon of Hope Uganda, for example, over the ten years of its existence.

Taking action:

Those with a heart to serve must take small steps—however insignificant they may seem. Go out and do something, anything, whatever, even if it’s small—something tangible, something real.