As a teenager, I dreamt of changing the world in a big way. I had a restless, untapped energy, waiting to be used to make a difference. And when I was introduced to volunteering, my own world changed. I volunteered for everything: I built habitats for rescued wild cats, conducted awareness-raising campaigns about human trafficking, cooked dinner for guests at the local Ronald McDonald House, and hosted fundraisers for homeless youth. I fell in love with every cause, but I soon realized there was only one of me.
One day, it hit me that if I could just get others to volunteer, to introduce them to causes they could fall in love with, I could amplify my own impact. To explore this idea further, I rallied a friend (and fellow volunteer) for an inspirational cross-country road trip. We took off from our hometown, Raleigh, North Carolina, in the fall of 2004 and traveled from state to state all the way to California in my Chevy Cavalier. We volunteered and met locals wherever we landed. Everywhere we went we heard the same thing: People really wanted to get involved, they just didn’t know how to get started.
Concluding our journey and returning to Raleigh nearly three months later, we were inspired to start a nonprofit aimed at showing people in our local community how to do just that. We wanted to amplify our own impact by getting others involved. What followed was an organization called Activate Good, which connects individuals, groups, and companies to volunteer needs with an array of nonprofits in our community. Ultimately, our vision is that volunteerism will be an integrated part of our community’s life and culture, as common a pastime as shopping or eating at a restaurant.
While developing our vision over the past few years, our team took note of some troubling statistics. For example, fewer than 1 in 4 people in our hometown are volunteering. And, despite receiving high marks in areas like school performance, green space, cultural amenities, women’s health, and best places to live for young professionals, Raleigh ranked 47th of 51 large cities across the nation in volunteerism. These statistics were jarring, because we knew that ours was a city of immensely caring people. But, there was a disconnect between caring and awareness of or access to opportunities to act on that caring.
When we learned that Raleigh hadn’t had a dedicated volunteer center—a place where interested people could come and be connected with volunteer opportunities—in about a decade, we became determined to fill that role. There are volunteer centers all over the country, but we wanted to reimagine the very concept with the idea that by helping people convince others to volunteer, we would be drastically amplifying everyone’s impact.
Arianna Huffington wrote here that the "critical mass" for the service movement would occur "when the service habit hits enough people so that it can begin to spread spontaneously around the country." In order to spark movements to make volunteerism "viral" in Raleigh and cities like it, volunteer centers must undergo a paradigm shift. In our highly interconnected world (online, and often offline), volunteer centers must move away from thinking of themselves as central resource hubs and instead reinvent themselves as connectors in a social network. The idea of tapping into social capital to boost community engagement is not a new one, but it’s one that deserves more attention from volunteer centers: When it comes to building a strategy to increase volunteerism in a city with a low rate, social connections are vital to note. After all, nearly 42% of new volunteers got involved because someone they knew asked them to.
So, what would a reimagined volunteer center look like? It boils down to better tapping into social capital, and making your center accessible:
- Go out to meet people where they are. Beyond community outreach at events, this includes integrating volunteer "access points" where citizens can learn about and even sign up for volunteer opportunities in everyday places like the workplace, the mall, and school.
- Form interesting collaborations and partnerships. Local civic clubs or faith-based groups are logical partnership choices for volunteer centers, but why not venture beyond the norm to explore unique collaborations with unexpected allies?
- Employ and attract "ambassadors" who are inspired enough about volunteerism to instinctively mention their experience with it in casual conversations at parties. Finding those in your community who are already natural connectors is the place to start.
- Be inviting. To make volunteerism an integrated part of the community’s fabric, a volunteer center’s physical space should be a vibrant, joyful place people want to visit.
A reimagined volunteer center could be a community space where citizens’ imaginations are awakened, their creativity cultivated, and their dreams to do good activated. It should be colorful, open, accessible for public use, and inviting, with spaces to eat and drink, to learn about the community, to meet and share with other volunteers, and—of course—to take action. It should empower community members to visualize and internalize the joy of volunteering just by walking through the door.
As we work to boost volunteerism in Raleigh, we will be guided by this notion of the reimagined volunteer center. We will remember our time on the road trip, how with each new city we visited we were strangers, not fully aware of the many ways we might make a difference there. Fortunately, in every city there were people who hoped to amplify their impact by getting others, like us, involved. They made us feel welcome. They showed us the way.