Rx for Nonprofits: Your Volunteers and the Health Benefits of Service

An Experience Corps volunteer works on vocabulary words with his English language learner students (Photo: Faith Gong)

The health benefits of volunteering have been reported before, but much is still unknown about the causal relationship between giving time and personal health. Does volunteering make you healthier, or do healthier people volunteer? Should service be prescribed for those with cancer or chronic illness? Are there health benefits to  volunteering that working for pay cannot provide?

That picture is a little clearer thanks to a report VolunteerMatch released today with UnitedHealthcare. The new UnitedHealthcare/VolunteerMatch Do Good. Live Well. Survey provides compelling evidence that volunteering not only enhances volunteers’ physical and mental health but also strengthens relationships between employers and employees.

Among the key findings:

  • More than 68% of those who volunteered in the past year report that volunteering made them feel physically healthier.
  • 29% of volunteers who suffer from a chronic condition say that volunteering has helped them manage their chronic illness.
  • 89% of volunteers agree that volunteering improved their sense of well-being.
  • 73% of volunteers feel that volunteering lowered their stress levels.
  • 92% of volunteers agree that volunteering enriches their sense of purpose in life.
  • More than three-quarters of volunteers who participate in service activities through work report that they feel better about their employer because of the employer’s involvement in their volunteer activities.

You can download the entire report here. [PDF]

Your Organization and the Health of Your Volunteers

For nonprofits, the report is a reminder about healing, happiness and the role that nonprofits play for millions of volunteers.

In the daily work of managing our organizations, it’s easy to overlook the magic that comes from linking with, supporting, and nurturing a cause. A good fit between a volunteer and an organization can literally open a world of possibilities for both sides: When it’s right, volunteers can develop a renewed sense of purpose, create deep connections with other people, and benefit from increased physical and mental activity.

Few experiences in modern life can be so transformative  — and only a very few can have such a lasting and sustained impact on personal health. How can organizations help this process?

Learn from those who target volunteers who need help — An obvious way for organizations to connect with those whose emotional or physical health could benefit from the transformative aspects of volunteering is simply to recruit for it.

Some orgs already do this as part of their mission, especially those that involve the recently bereaved, cancer survivors, ex-cons or recovering addicts. Even if aiding the recovery of your volunteers is not a primary part of your mission, you can still learn from these other organizations in areas of messaging, sensitivity, safety, and other best practices.

Learn to recognize the signs — When they first refer, volunteers may be between jobs or relationships, nervous about an upcoming transition, or even depressed or angry about an illness or loss in their family. With time and nurturing, most volunteers pass through these valleys. But along the way there’s nothing stopping them from making enormous contributions to your mission.

During screening, learn to identify the signs of a volunteer prospect who is in recovery from a hit to her physical or mental well-being. If she brings it up, you have an opening to discuss the role that volunteering could play in helping her get to a new place. Setting realistic expectations is important, but try to balance your role as a risk manager with your role as one who can inspire supporters to reach for new goals.

Make your program a healthy place to volunteer — Most important, your organization should be an environment that’s both conducive to healthy volunteering and good for the long-term recovery of volunteers who need it. How are your volunteers treated? What kind of work are they tasked with? Does it involve exercise? How do you celebrate their accomplishments? How do you correct their mistakes? Are you encouraging healthy relationships between volunteers and other volunteers? Between volunteers and staff?

Being able to answer all these questions positively isn’t a question of budget (although having financial resources certainly helps) — it’s a question of caring.

With National Volunteer Week (April 18-24) ahead of us, now is a great time to make changes that could improve the health of your volunteers. Here are just a few ideas to get you started. Note that most of the solutions here don’t require much besides a bit of extra planning:

  • Invite your volunteers to group lunches to get to know each other better.
  • Celebrate important achievements of volunteers in a public way so they know the organization really cares.
  • Divvy up boring and repetitive tasks so that one volunteer doesn’t have to do it all alone, and miss out on more challenging or meaningful projects.
  • Hold your next volunteer appreciation event at a park and go for a hike together.

Already creating a healthy environment for your volunteers? Share your tips here at Engaging Volunteers.