I have been volunteering all of my professional life. I am now 81, retired from clinical practice, and I continue volunteering. I prefer to volunteer with charities where I can be hands-on, making a difference by contributing my time, labor, and expertise rather than only by contributing money. Nonprofits are always in need of fund-raisers, hands-on volunteers and financial donors. And there is no shortage of opportunities for either.
When I first started volunteering, I did so because that’s what I was taught to do, first by my parents who were involved in school PTAs and as community organizers when I was a youth and then by my teachers when I became a psychologist. Providing pro bono services was part of our professional ethics. I both gave free psychotherapy to those in need and provided supervision for volunteers working in community mental health centers. Sometimes I found my volunteer experiences more rewarding and more fulfilling than my clinical practice. I felt I was having more of an impact on these in greatest need than the more affluent people in my practice.
It wasn’t until later in my professional career that I began to understand the psychological and physical benefits of volunteering and charitable giving. (Coming from a very low income family, and not having discretionary money, it wasn’t until much later in life that I learned about the benefits of charitable giving.) Like most volunteers, my experience suggests that as volunteers we get as much or more out being volunteers as the nonprofit agencies themselves. It leaves us feeling good about ourselves, gives a sense of purpose, and enhances our overall sense of well-being. Volunteering helps alleviate depression, stress, and tends to energize us.
Psychological research has been able to confirm these subjective experiences. A group of subjects were all given $10 each. Half the group was told to out and buy something for themselves while the other half was told to go out and buy something to be given to underprivileged children. On a pre- and post-test of self-esteem, the group that bought things for others ended up reporting feeling better about themselves than those who bought something for themselves. Repeatedly it has been found that when we volunteer to help others, we walk away feeling physically and emotionally enhanced. Similar findings occur for people who make charitable giving a priority in their lives.
I belong to a group for whom giving grants to small, underfunded nonprofit groups that work with underserved children and youth, is part of its mission. I can tell you from first hand experience, when we give a $10-15,000 grant to an agency for purchasing some needed items, e.g., computers, iPads, etc., their level of appreciation and simply knowing that we are making a huge difference affecting 100s of young people, leaves us experiencing a natural high. It may not be much for us, but for the agencies and the people they serve, it is huge.
Too many people refrain from volunteering, thinking that they have nothing to offer either financially or in terms of any particular skill to make a difference. This is totally false thinking. The truth is, it doesn’t take much to make a difference. Whether an hour or two a week or month or a few dollars here and there, the impact is considerable to those in need. And the payoff to oneself is even greater. As we age, especially when we retire, we think of ourselves as having less to offer the world. The truth is, we have something more and different to offer and in many cases something better. We have experience, time, and enthusiasm.
The reward for volunteering is not a promotion or a salary as it was when we were working, but in knowing we are actually making a difference in the lives of others. Many people work for 30-40 or even 50 years on a job never thinking that they made a difference, never feeling appreciated. When you volunteer for a nonprofit, you will be appreciated and you will make a difference. And that will leave you feeling better about yourself. It will give you a renewed or enhanced sense of purpose. And having a purpose in life is one of the keys to personal happiness and fulfillment. Research has demonstrated that happiness cannot be pursued directly; rather, happiness ensues from living a purposeful life.
Dr. Edward Dreyfus is the author of Living Life from the Inside Out: Who You Are Matters, and ten other books.