Note: Junior Achievement has not reviewed or endorsed my post. My opinions written below do not necessarily reflect those of Junior Achievement.
I began volunteering this summer with Junior Achievement (JA). My only regret is that I didn`t start sooner! As I`m sure you can relate, I felt I was too busy. I finally reached the point where I had talked so much about volunteering someday, that I decided if I don`t start now, I`ll still be talking about getting-around to it when I`m 132.
Why do people volunteer, anyway?
The American Psychological Association interviewed Mark Snyder, PhD, a psychologist from the University of Minnesota, who in the mid-1980s began studying volunteerism.
The linked article shows that in the United States, nearly one out of three adults regularly spends some time volunteering. “When I initially started thinking about this, I was struck by how much easier it was to come up with reasons why people shouldn’t volunteer than why they should,” said Snyder. “It’s time consuming, it’s stressful, it takes time away from your job or family or leisure.” What is it, he began to ask, that propels so many people to donate their time, energy, and efforts?
Snyder and his colleagues eventually identified five primary motivations for volunteering:
- Values. Volunteering to satisfy personal values or humanitarian concerns. (For some people this can have a religious component.)
- Community concern. Volunteering to help a particular community – such as a neighborhood or ethnic group, to which you feel attached.
- Esteem enhancement. Volunteering to feel better about yourself or escape other pressures.
- Understanding. Volunteering to gain a better understanding of other people, cultures or places.
- Personal development. Volunteering to challenge yourself; meet new people and make new friends; or further your career.
If you are considering volunteering, volunteer for something that matches your motivations. (Younger volunteers are more likely to volunteer for career-related reasons, while older volunteers more often cite abstract ideas of good citizenship and contribution to their communities.) “People whose experiences best matched their motivations were more satisfied with the experience. Those same people also said that they’d be more likely to continue volunteering.” (1998, Clary, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, No. 6, pages 1516-1530.)
Snyder’s team found that people who have more seemingly “selfish” motivations – esteem enhancement, personal development and understanding – are more likely to stick with a volunteering organization longer than people with more “other focused” motivations, such as values. This finding suggests that volunteers, and volunteer organizations, are best served when volunteers perform roles and engage in activities which allow the volunteers to achieve the personal gains that matter most to the volunteers. The most committed, productive, and long-term volunteers seem to be those whose volunteer experience satisfies a personal agenda: Volunteers do best in helping others when in the process of helping, they help themselves, too.
Snyder concurs: “Volunteering can have an altruistic component, reflecting a true concern for the welfare of others, but also an egoistic component, in that the volunteer receives clear benefits to the self. It’s better to see the two feeding each other, rather than being in competition.”
I’ll share how the motivations above (values, community concern, esteem enhancement, understanding, and personal development) have impacted and rewarded me during my tenure with JA.
How I benefit from volunteering with Junior Achievement
I value being a leader, a role model, and a mentor. JA provides me with a platform to facilitate programs with young people, allowing me to excite and instruct them to engage the world of business. The “working world” is tough; it can feel remote and confusing to kids. JA gives me the opportunity – such as through facilitating the Dream Big program – to inspire young teenagers with lessons from their own role models; to help motivate and prepare them for their first part-time and volunteer job; to explore their dream career job; to choose values which support their dreams; to decide the skills and knowledge they want to obtain to reach their dreams; and to learn how to find and communicate with mentors, who can help them overcome obstacles.
I am grateful to my mentors who help me pursue my dreams. I value reciprocating the favor by being a mentor myself, through my involvement with JA.
I believe it`s important to provide young people with experiential business programs that can imbue them with the confidence and skills they need to become the leaders of tomorrow. It means a lot to me to provide to young people some of the most important and inspiring programs on work readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy. These programs can literally, in a few hours, change the course of a student’s life!
In the video at the end of this article, a man says, “We all care about our community. Volunteers care. They don’t care more. They just do something about it.” His statement struck me. Many people who don’t volunteer are nonetheless benefactors to their communities. My mom owned and managed a business for 15 years, employing about 10 people at a time. She worked six or seven days a week, taking one vacation-week only once every three years – for 15 consecutive years! She would have been pressed to find time and energy to volunteer. But her customers loved her and she provided jobs to many people who worked with her for years. I am proud that my mom was a recognized community entrepreneur and leader. Ain’t nobody gonna tell me that she didn’t contribute!
I sympathize with kids in my community. As I chat with them, I see that they have the same ambitions and insecurities that I had when I was their age. As I grew up, I didn’t experience a JA program. It would have given me an early edge. When I see kids in my JA workshop become motivated and confident, I imagine that the program – and maybe me as a person – is a spark which propels them toward their dreams of work success and community contribution.
A former participant of JA wrote:
“What has impacted me more than anything? JA. Really. Junior Achievement broke through and hit me over the head in high school. From there I have been fascinated with how business, governments and markets work. They gave me the curiosity and the desire to learn. From there, I have gobbled knowledge and know how. Embraced mentors, teachers and anyone with a differing opinion than me. I am volunteering in many capacities and plan to commit some time to this organization. Our children need to learn everything JA stands for.”
I’m grateful that the teachers appreciate how JA programs enhance their curriculum. I enjoy how each teacher contributes to the program by helping me tailor it to their classroom’s personalities and dynamics – every class is different!
Well known tennis star Andy Roddick shared a story about Andre Agassi:
“When I was 17 years old, we were on a flight together. I was very nervous, but Andre was kind and encouraged me to ask him questions. When I asked about his biggest regret, I expected some answer related to our profession. Instead he said it was not starting his charitable foundation earlier. There are most likely plenty of kids at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a model K-12 charter school for disadvantaged children in Las Vegas, who have never watched a match of his. I promise you that Andre could not care less. He would rather be viewed as the man who gives them dreams and opportunities.”
Actions speak louder than words. Volunteering shows that I give a damn: It demonstrates that I’m done talking about my values of helping others. Now people see that I’m doing it.
When I think of my volunteer work, I feel great.
I did an exercise that involved listing things that motivate and drive me. I listed everything that I find fun, interesting, or exciting; anything that means something to me.
For each item listed, I asked “Why do I care about it?” I wrote the reason why I cared. Then I looked at the reason and asked, “Why do I care about that reason?” I kept going deeper until I found that my reason for caring about almost everything reduced to the same fundamental reason.
For example, one item I listed which drives me is “Reading and learning new things.”
I asked, “Why do I like reading and learning new things?” I answered that I like learning to be a better writer by reading works of good writers.
Then “Why do I like learning to be a better writer?” Because I want to influence others. Being a better writer helps you to more effectively influence others – whether you’re writing an email, proposal, blog article, or book.
“Why do you want to influence others?” Because influencing others helps me earn money and win respect; people appreciate receiving information and feeling inspired.
“Why do people appreciate receiving information and feeling inspired?” Because it helps them to be more successful; to feel better about themselves and their own possibilities.
“Why do you care about helping people be more successful; to feel better about themselves and their own possibilities?” Because then they’re more likely to achieve their goals and feel happy – and I will have helped make that happen.
“Why do you care about helping people achieve their goals and helping them feel happy?” Because achieving goals, being happy, and helping others – is the reason we’re here. If we’re not here to develop ourselves; to be our best; and to help others be their best – then what else is there? Doesn’t it all come down to being our best and helping others be their best? Then we all enjoy the progress and happiness that flows from productive, happy, and sharing people?
Invest three hours in facilitating a JA program, and you will feel a sense of euphoria and contribution that will stay with you a long time. Contrast that with watching three hours of TV, or three hours playing a video game. The enjoyment derived from watching the program or playing the game is often temporal – usually vanishing the moment you turn off the TV.
Through JA, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of – and strengthened my connection to – young people, students, teachers, schools, and non-profits in general.
I’ve learned that kids are unaware of the diversity of available careers – most dream of doing the same 30 or so white collar professions. They have little idea of what work their parents do (other than by job title, if even that). Parents need to help kids understand – in simple terms – what they do and how they do it, so kids can start having meaningful discussions about their own career possibilities.
I’ve observed that JA employees work hard! I’ve been biased by the notion that government and non-profits might not be as efficient as for-profit organizations. In my experience with JA however, the staff are devoted and run a lean ship.
I’ve been reminded of how hard it is to be a kid in high school. Today, it’s so easy for me to walk into any school, to speak with anyone, and to facilitate a program for 45 students. But in my first year of high school, when I had to present in history class, I could barely breath. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. It was crushing when I failed at something. It took time and practice for me to become a fluent, self-assured speaker; to learn that failure is normal as we progress on the crooked – rather than linear – path to success.
When I share my early struggles with kids, it can give them hope that they too will overcome their self-doubts. It encourages me as well – when I think of how daunting some of my current obstacles seem – to be reminded that not long ago, I wouldn’t have been able to speak in front of five people, let alone 45. One day, I’ll look back on my current obstacles, and smile at how trivial they appear in retrospect.
The graph below shows that volunteers report gaining many skills through volunteering. The full survey shows how volunteering also improves job opportunities.
Another survey reports:
- 73% of employers would recruit a candidate with volunteering experience over one without
- 94% of employers believe that volunteering can add to skills
- 94% of employees who volunteered to learn new skills had benefited either by getting their first job, improving their salary, or being promoted
I volunteer to explore new fields of potential interest. Ibarra’s “Working Identity” shows that we discover who we are – and what we like to do – not by introspection, but by trying out new things; engaging in new experiences; and starting new relationships. From these experiments we learn about our skills and preferences. Volunteering is a great way to try out things you might like to do: the barrier to entry is low, and it’s easy to move on if it’s not the right fit for you. Volunteering with JA has reinforced my conviction that I love to speak and facilitate; it’s shown me that I’m almost obsessive in my passion to continuously refine the workshop content – to see how I can make it more engaging and beneficial.
Volunteering with JA enhances my leadership skills. I first heard of JA when an entrepreneur mentioned that she developed her leadership skills with adults by first leading kids as a JA volunteer.
For any skill you wish to strengthen, volunteering provides a safe environment to practice. The second time I facilitated a JA program, I walked into a strong-minded and unruly class. The students were engaged with my material, but as they observed my inability or unwillingness to seize control of the classroom, they became increasingly loud and interruptive. By the end of the morning I had lost order.
Then I witnessed an amazing thing. The students went into a classroom with a new teacher. The same teenagers were actively participating, and rarely did they lose focus, interrupt the teacher, or goof off. When a student did something that detracted from the lesson, the teacher corrected the student immediately and efficiently. I watched in astonishment and took notes.
The teacher explained to me that to gain the respect of the kids, I need to immediately establish myself as the alpha male and leader. I need to correct any misbehaviour promptly, abruptly, and consistently – in a firm but fair manner – with direct, simple instructions. When a kid lifts his desk, I can’t ignore it, and I can’t ask, “Excuse me, if you don’t mind, would you please put that desk down?” Instead I need to tell the student, with authority, “Put that desk down.” I started improving my non-verbal communication, too: standing straighter, looking directly at students, and walking closer to them to engage or to correct.
The next class I facilitated had an extra 20 teenagers (45 in total). I maintained order. The students completed the exercises more thoughtfully. And the students and staff said it was an enjoyable and impactful program. I was asked to return to give the workshop to another group. Though I struggled the previous week, volunteering enabled me to get a fresh start to try again.
If you’re between jobs, volunteering shows that you’re not isolated at home and feeling depressed. It demonstrates that you’re active, meeting with people and productively contributing. It provides you with great stories to share. If you do a good job, then you will get testimonials and references that help you receive introductions, and maybe even a job offer.
Volunteering with JA has helped me meet interesting people and to make new friends. Volunteering offers the best kind of networking: you give value without expecting anything in return, rather than just taking.
If you volunteer in a teaching role, you find that nothing helps you master your subject matter more than having to teach it. Each time I deliver a program, I notice what works and what does not. The next time, I leverage more of what worked, and I omit or change what did not. It’s a continuous experiment of improvement.
I deliver the Dream Big Program in three hours, but I’ve spent days becoming more of a subject-matter expert on things related to the program. For instance, I gained insight into my own dreams and life experiences (e.g., I confirmed some of my skills in public speaking and coaching). I learned of role models that teens have today (from Terry Fox and Michael Jackson to Steve Nash and Bill Gates); careers kids care about (often high-paying, white-collar professions); what gets them excited about part-time jobs (money to buy a car, electronics, and clothes); and how to motivate them to volunteer (show how volunteering develops leadership skills, provides references, and gets their foot-in-the-door to otherwise inaccessible opportunities). I’ve learned about taxes for students working part-time jobs (in Canada, for students under 18, and who earn less than $10,000 a year, the only amount deducted from their pay is a small amount for employment insurance. They effectively pay no income tax and are not deducted for the Canada Pension Plan.) I’ve seen the values which students believe can support their dreams (e.g., persistence and risk-taking); of how values can conflict (e.g., loyalty vs. independence, candor vs. harmony); and how to help them resolve the conflicts. I’ve developed ways to add and strengthen forces that support young people’s dreams, and how to overcome their perceived obstacles. I’ve learned how to help them find mentors, and how they can work with them.
As a teaching volunteer, you learn as much or more from your students and your teaching experience, as your students learn from you.
How you can volunteer
If you explore volunteer opportunities, aim to try something that you’ll love to do – which you’ll personally gain from. If you join a random cause or role just to “help others,” you’ll find that you can also help others in any other organization or role. Consider what you’d like to try out; people you wish to meet; a skill you want to improve; or an industry you desire to learn about. The more personally motivated you are, the more rewarding the experience will be, and the more you’ll contribute to the recipients of your volunteering.
If you’d like to partner with the business community and educators to engage young people in hands-on programs which foster skills in work-readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy, then volunteering with Junior Achievement could be a very fulfilling experience for you!
For teenagers, here are 20 Ways to Help Other People (and yourself) by Volunteering.
I’ll leave you with this video which shows how we all volunteer daily, even by just holding a door for someone. It explores why now is a great time to volunteer.