How to Change the World in Five Hours or Less
Over the years, I’ve been very involved with volunteerism…I devoted a year of my life to AmeriCorps, worked for 3 years at my college’s community service office, helped indigenous farmers in Peru, and was involved with Habitat for Humanity and World Relief for a number of years.
But then in 2012, I reached a deep personal crossroads and it all came crashing down…
I was reflecting on my long resume of community service and a lingering question haunted me: had my service actually transformed lives? The answer was no. I hated to admit it, but I couldn’t land on one moment where I had truly shifted the course of someone else’s life. Had I learned a great deal about myself? Yes. A great deal about injustice? Yes. But transforming a life? No.
This was a devastating realization for me. Service should be transformative for both the servant and the served, but I was missing the mark. My response was to completely reassess what serving others truly means. I concluded that transformative service is not about the number of causes we give to, the number of dollars we donate, or the amount of time we can brag about volunteering. Service is about creating transformative impact in the lives of those we serve.
This realization led me to narrow my focus to just one cause. By dedicating myself to just one cause, I’m able to serve families more deeply, understand my cause more fully, and enjoy a much richer experience at the nonprofit I volunteer with.
I cannot deny that my experiences volunteering at many places were important for me. In fact, it’s really the only way I was able to zero in on my central cause. In the long run, however, we nonprofit professionals need to be focused on bringing in recurring volunteers because this is the only way to truly transform our communities.
If everyone gave 5-7 hours per month to just one cause, we would change the world. I’ll give you an example: When I realized in 2012 that my service was having minimal impact, I decided that I was going to focus 7 hours serving each month with just one organization, Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). JVS helps incoming refugees acclimate to life in the U.S. The reality is, the number of families coming far exceeds the capacity of JVS support staff, so they need volunteers to help families navigate tasks such as renting an apartment, grocery shopping, and making appointments. For refugees thrust into a strange country because of circumstances beyond their control, even the small things become daunting. I knew I could help, so I work with the same family each week. I teach them English, help them navigate appointments, and generally make sure they aren’t lost in a system they don’t understand.
By serving one cause, I build a relationship of trust and deep friendship with one family. Because I only focus on them, we can really get into our English lessons or a cultural outing. My volunteering is focused, it’s deliberate, and I will be a part of their lives for the foreseeable future. I know in my heart I’ll make a far deeper, far more meaningful impact in their lives than the micro-impacts I was making while volunteering here there and everywhere.
What if we all did this? What if everyone had one cause they devoted 7 hours (and heck, while I’m at it, 5% of their resources) to each week? We could change our country! Every kid struggling to read could have a reading partner every week who could be depended on. No refugee family would have to arrive to the U.S. only to be defeated by systems they simply do not understand. Most importantly, this would do more to bridge the gap between races, between the rich and the poor, between refugee and resident than just about anything else out there.
5 hours. 1 cause that has meaning for you. Enough to change the world.
How can the above help us as we try to motivate volunteers to commit for the long-term?