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National Volunteer Week was April 21-27

National Volunteer Week 2024 has come and gone. The official 7-day period was from April 21 through 27.  President Biden submitted a proclamation from the White House about the event. The week honors the selfless actions of volunteers. It coincides with April's Global Volunteer Month. 

Volunteering benefits people in countless ways. One of the more positive outcomes of offering services pro bono is it fills in gaps of understaffing. Volunteers who contribute their time to food banks, schools, libraries, hospitals, children or seniors do an immeasurable public service when downsizing is a reality. But there are other advantages to being a volunteer--like camaraderie with others, giving life a greater sense of purpose, learning new skills and improving interpersonal and technical communication. 

The fact that the number of people who volunteered to help worthy causes dropped significantly during the pandemic is no surprise. With the uncertainty created by COVID-19 in 2020, people were scared to venture out in ways they previously had. But Covid is certainly not to blame for the decline in volunteerism. The trend started way before the onset of the international health crisis. 

Recent statistics reveal that about 30% of people in the US volunteer, either informally or formally. Most volunteerism is for causes that center around hunger and homelessness. Other worthy areas like arts and culture lag at around only 6% of volunteers offering free help to non-profits in that category. Because the cost of theatre and concert tickets is high, the lack of volunteers in the arts is not unexpected. Unfortunately, attending live shows is a luxury for a large segment with the inflation rate as it is.

Why is volunteering at such a low? My view is that society as it is does not encourage selflessness. The drop in the number of people willing to volunteer has been trending for at least 20 years. Americorps and the US Census Bureau released a report in January 2023 that showed how formal volunteers have dropped yet it is encouraging that 23% of those age 16 and up were still doing formal volunteer work. The report revealed that more folks might be willing to volunteer informally, like driving an elderly neighbor to an appointment or picking up groceries for a homebound acquaintance.

A comprehensive sociological study might give more insight into the lack of people willing to help out for no pay. My interpretation is that the pandemic did play a part in the current trend.

People were isolated for years and as a result, communication skills deteriorated. In my view, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. It is ironic because although the health crisis caused humans the reality check of looking at mortality in the face, the lack of social interaction might have contributed to a decrease in wanting to be around others. The focus became 'me first.' And it has to be 'you first' for someone to sign up to volunteer. And understandably, energy was spent living through trauma and folks have no emotional reserve left.

I see it in many people. They are not willing to follow through or give of themselves the way they did a few years ago. But I recognize that many are simply not in the position to offer their services pro bono.

A result of the pandemic was 'empathy burnout' or compassion fatigue. With the constant stress of a health emergency, many showed enormous compassion. But times have changed. Effectively, Covid has ended. Now many people I talk to are more concerned about their next vacation or self-care project, like having nails or lashes done, than spending the afternoon at the local food bank or senior center.

And depression is another factor. If you are battling demons and need to support yourself, it is very tough to think about helping others. Another reason for not volunteering is that there are not enough hours when work and family responsibilities come first. And if you have free time, you feel the need to relax. Finally, it costs to volunteer. Non-profits will not pay for your gas to and from assignments. 

My friend (whose name will go unmentioned) recently changed his mind about volunteering for an arts organization because they requested he pay for his background check. I think that's pretty standard with non-profits, but I understand his conflict. He asked me, "Why should I, a busy person, who is giving high-level professional services at no cost, be expected to open my wallet? I have nothing to hide-- but they should pay for it if they want me!"

It is understandable he would feel the way he does, but I would make an educated guess the venue did not have funding to accommodate background checks. I hold more respect than ever for the wonderful people I know who have volunteered, currently and in previous years.

Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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