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The community building potential of volunteerism
01 February 2005
by Mary Merrill

Sixty years ago people volunteered as part of a group. They joined clubs or organizations that promoted or required service as an expectation of membership. Social bonds formed by working together. People do not tend to join groups today. Volunteerism is an individualized, private, self-induced activity. Hustinx and Lammertyn (2003) identified this as a shift from collective to reflexive volunteerism in post-modern society. Putnam (2002) traces the decline of civic engagement and volunteerism in the United States as a consequence of the movement away from community.

Have managers of today’s volunteers eroded the community-building nature of volunteerism by redesigning volunteer work into more short term individualized, episodic opportunities? In our efforts to attract busy people, have we streamlined the way we work so that volunteers can pick and choose, move in and out, and remain relatively autonomous?

Have we inadvertently made community a requirement for volunteering rather than a benefit of volunteering? By screening volunteer applicants to find the best match or the right fit, are we only selecting individuals who will fit into an existing culture or community? Are we failing to focus attention on the community building potential of volunteer work?

If we believe community is a benefit of volunteering, we are challenged to find ways to bring people together in community, live or virtual, to increase the high touch of connectedness while respecting time pressures. Community can be strengthened when people gather around common values, learn together, work together, and share their stories and experiences with one another.

Viewed in the context of the larger social issue of declining civic engagement and the loss of social capital (networks of social connections), it may be time to refocus our thinking and approach volunteerism as a powerful venue for building community and strengthening social capital.

Team based volunteer projects, school-sponsored service learning activities for students combining classroom learning with activities in the community and family volunteering are being used to create opportunities for small group reflections and discussions that can build community. For example, The Hong Kong Volunteer Center supports a family volunteerism program that involves small communities of families within local schools, who meet to design projects, share experiences, and support the value of service.

In the United States the Hands On Network (formerly CityCares) was designed to engage working professionals by creating convenient, results oriented service projects. Recently they have responded to requests for issue related information from their volunteers by offering small educational forums and round table discussions. These educationally based activities have led to a new strategic direction expanding the network and reinventing volunteerism by bridging direct service to long term civic action.

Volunteer organizations can create communities within communities by offering educational opportunities for volunteers, much as libraries have contributed to community building by offering book discussion groups. AARP, a membership organization dedicated to making life better for people aged 50 and over, has created Citizen Academies. The academies bring volunteers together to learn about advocacy, lobbying and volunteer management to help mobilize and support projects in their individual communities.

Museums, art galleries and zoos attract volunteers with training programs and an opportunity to be part of a special community of museum and gallery guides. Online volunteers create chat rooms, bulletin boards and blogs to foster their sense of community.

The Peace Corps deploys volunteers in small groups, keeping them together for the first months so that they can build community before sending them to their individual assignments. The International Executive Service Corps houses volunteers, working on different projects within the same city at one hotel, giving volunteers the opportunity to network and socialize before and after assignments.

Consider community as an ultimate benefit, not an initial requirement of volunteerism.