Give Back And Make It Pay Off

Last Updated May 25, 2011 4:25 PM EDT

More companies today are trying to create a culture of "giving back," asking employees to heed the call of service, in hopes that employees will feel more engaged and connected to their place of work. But you may have had mixed feelings, wondering whether volunteering will add stress to your life (one more demand on an already tapped out schedule) or if it will be good for your state of mind.
Of course, you're not supposed to volunteer for what it does for you (though some experts disagree with this) but undoubtedly, self-interest is motivating.

What the data shows
The research does show that volunteering gives back to you, assuming you're doing what makes you feel good. Here's what the research shows you get from volunteering (not including the benefits to the organization and people you're donating your time) and how to make the most of it:

  • Volunteering reduces stress and those who volunteer have lower mortality rates.
  • Volunteering enhances your social networks to buffer against stress.
  • But, you need to log a minimum number of hours in order to derive health benefits from volunteering. That has been defined as between 40 to 100 hours a year or volunteering for at least two organizations, depending on the study.
  • Volunteering helps you find what you love. Chris Jarvis, co-founder for RealizedWorth, an employee volunteering firm wrote in his blog:

It is essential that people begin to discover their intrinsic motivations for volunteering. Why? Because when the things we do connect to who we are, we become personally invested. Our own identity works itself out in conjunction with volunteering. As we reach out to others, we begin to take a journey inward. We begin to discover and express our truer self.

How do you find what you love?
The problem with many non-profits is they don't give people meaningful experiences. You might be asked to stack boxes in a food kitchen, but never have contact with the people the kitchen serves. So Jarvis suggests the following:
  • Try to find an experience that connects you to "your humanity."
  • Look for an experience that allows you to contribute your skills, knowledge or concerns.
  • Try out different positions or organizations. Most people don't know what they're looking for and need to experiment before they find something meaningful. Treat it like dating. You have an idea of what you are looking for, but willing to be experimental to some degree.
  • Make sure you feel like you're getting something in return. Asking yourself, "What's in it for me," keeps us from objectifying the people we're trying to help--and no one wants to feel like a project.
  • You should have the following thought: "I feel bad about volunteering because I think I'm getting more out of it than I'm giving." That's a sign of a good fit.
  • You should feel like you're making a difference, not coming back to the same situation week after week--and this is something non-profits need to do a better job of communicating to their volunteers.
How did you find a volunteering job you love and why? Please post in the comment section below.


Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy of flickr user vastateparksstaff
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.