The power of giving: How volunteering can lead to a healthier, happier and more fulfilled life

To explore the benefits of volunteering, I challenged myself in September to volunteer a minimum of three hours each workday with a different charity each week. The charitable organizations I chose – Harvest Project, Union Gospel Mission, Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver, and imagine1day – are all doing vital work to help people in need. Here are some observations from my experiences this month:

Get Physical for a Good Cause

Much of my volunteer work this month was a whirlwind of physical activity, ranging from picking up donated food and other products from local stores, organizing and moving inventory, to working in kitchens to prep and serve meals. One of my main take-away this month: volunteering can be a workout.

In my day job, much of my time is spent on a computer. Sitting in front of a screen all day is not the best recipe for optimal physical health, and so I welcomed the physical nature of the volunteer work. One immediate benefit from all this physical activity was how I felt at the end of the day. Rather than feeling drained and foggy-headed after hours on a computer, I finished my volunteer shifts feeling energized. Not surprising since physical activity helps to improve the functioning of your brain and gives you more energy.

There is a laundry list of benefits from including regular physical activity in your life. It helps to control weight, promote better sleep, relieve stress, improve your mood, and reduce the risk of serious health problems, such as heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. To get these benefits, health experts say you should aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Knowing that you’re meeting your daily quota for physical activity, all in the name of a good cause, is added incentive to volunteer more often.

Boost Your Happiness

As an ultimate form of good karma, volunteering can make you happier too. Studies have found that regular volunteering may serve to boost your happiness and overall well-being by promoting physical activity, social interactions, and a deep sense of fulfillment that comes from making a contribution. There’s an added benefit from being in a better frame of mind – it puts you in a more giving mindset since happier people are more inclined to do kind acts for others. Personally, all this month I’ve been more open to giving my time and lending a helping hand to others, even to complete strangers. It’s nice to know that volunteering may make you happier, and more giving too.

Connect with Your Community

Volunteering also lets you connect directly with people in your community who have different backgrounds than you. I experienced this first-hand during my week volunteering with Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. One of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods, the Downtown Eastside is known for its high rates of homelessness, drug addiction, sex trade, crime and violence. Before this month, I hadn’t spent much time in the neighbourhood and, like many people I know, my perception of the area was not good.

I won’t sugar-coat it. My week volunteering with UGM was intense, especially when participating in the Street Light and Mobile Mission programs, which took us out into the community to provide food, water and other basics to people on the streets. This put me face to face with the realities of homelessness and addiction, an emotional experience to say the least.

Heading out with UGM's Mobile Mission to reach out to homeless people who would not otherwise access UGM's services (Photo by Mark van Manen)
Heading out with UGM’s Mobile Mission to reach out to homeless people who would not otherwise access UGM’s services (Photo by Mark van Manen)

 

Though challenging at times, the week was also deeply rewarding and inspiring. Spending time with staff and volunteers, who are doing truly remarkable work to help the most vulnerable members of our community, was a gift. And some of my conversations with UGM’s clients helped to improve my own understanding of the issues facing people in the area.

At the drop-in centre one morning, one gentleman candidly discussed the challenges of living on social assistance in Vancouver (we both commiserated on how pricy it is to live in Vancouver, now the most expensive city in North America to live in, ahead of New York and Los Angeles). As an “employable single adult under 65 years of age,” he receives $610 per month in income assistance from the government, of which $375 is earmarked for shelter. That leaves him with $235 per month, or just over $7.50 per day, for food, transportation and all other expenses. [It was only eight in the morning, but I had almost spent the equivalent of his daily stipend on transit and a coffee.]

My week volunteering at UGM allowed me to reflect on my preconceptions of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Experiencing the neighbourhood first-hand, and connecting with some of its residents directly, helped me to see a subtler, more human, side of the community. While it’s hard to escape the problems so visible on the surface, there is also a wonderful sense of belonging and amity in the neighbourhood. Getting the chance to see this part of my city in a new light was one of the biggest rewards from volunteering this month.

Pair Your Passion with a Cause You Care About

My final week of volunteering with imagine1day was quite different from my time with the other organizations. Rather than asking its volunteers to do specific jobs, imagine1day invites you to come up with your own idea for contributing to the charity. Volunteers design and carry out their own “Creatribution” project (a made-up word combining “create” and “contribution”) in support of imagine1day’s work to provide a quality education to children in Ethiopia.

I’m an avid walker, so I created a 5-day event called Walk a Mile in Their Shoes to help raise funds and build awareness for imagine1day’s education projects. Each day’s walk was of varying distance to help raise awareness for some of the challenges facing school children in Ethiopia. I found the process fun and creative, and it was rewarding to complete my project as I had envisioned. The lesson from my week with imagine1day is to align your interests and passions with a cause you care about. It’s a sure-fire way to develop a more consistent, long-lasting habit of volunteerism in your life.

Launching Walk a Mile in Their Shoes fundraiser for imagine1day (Photo by Michelle Lazar)
Launching Walk a Mile in Their Shoes fundraiser for imagine1day (Photo by Michelle Lazar)

 

Imagine the collective impact we could have in creating a better society if each of us volunteered a little more often. Not only can your efforts help to make your community a better place for all, but volunteering can lead to a healthier, happier and more fulfilled life for you too. That’s the power of volunteering; it doesn’t just help those in need.

Challenge Nine: Help those in need

Volunteering is one of the most effective ways you can make a difference in your local community. Doing volunteer work lets you connect and contribute to your community directly, by helping people most in need. Whether helping to organize a clothing drive for the homeless or mentoring a youth at risk, the positive impacts of your efforts are often plain to see. Not only do your efforts help to make the community a better place for all, but volunteering can bring an incredible sense of achievement and fulfillment to your own life.

When it comes to volunteering, Canadians are a giving bunch. According to Statistics Canada, about one-half of Canadians aged 15 and over did volunteer work in 2010. In total, Canadians devoted almost 2.07 billion hours to non-profit and charitable organizations, equivalent to just under 1.1 million full-time jobs.

However, most of the heavy lifting is done by a small subset of the population. In 2010, approximately 10% of those who volunteered accounted for over half (53%) of all volunteer hours. Each of these “top volunteers” gave more than 390 hours during the year to non-profits and charitable organizations. On average, these people devoted 7.5 hours – or a full workday – each and every week to volunteer activities. They might not get much public recognition, but in my view these folks are the everyday heroes in our society.

Now imagine if everybody contributed at the same clip as these top volunteers. Imagine the collective impact we could have in creating a better society – one that’s more compassionate, better connected, more engaged, and healthier. In a word, more sustainable.

Of course, devoting 7.5 hours a week to volunteer activities is not practical for many people. With all our personal and professional responsibilities, it can be difficult to carve out any extra time in an already packed schedule. Still, I’d argue that almost everyone could spare at least a couple extra hours in the week for volunteer activities. Personally, I could easily give up some of the time I spend in front of the tube or surfing the web. Shifting this “wasted” time to more meaningful activities wouldn’t really be that hard. It just takes some discipline and dedication.

As added incentive, volunteering carries many benefits for the giver. For one, doing volunteer work can help you to develop new professional skills and learn new knowledge. It also gives you the chance to network with others and meet new people – and develop better communication and social skills in the process. This is especially beneficial to new immigrants looking to improve their language skills and new residents wanting to establish a solid support network in the community. For young emerging professionals, or people considering a new career path, volunteering is a good way to improve your career options and explore new fields. It lets you gain valuable experience, while demonstrating your commitment, enthusiasm and work ethic to potential employers.

But what about people (frankly, like me) who already have established careers, as well as strong networks in the community? Are there other benefits that come from developing a more consistent habit of volunteerism? To explore this question, this month I’ve challenged myself to join the big leagues of our country’s top volunteers. While I’ve always been a big believer in the importance of volunteering, admittedly my past efforts have been more patchwork than routine. So for the month of September, my challenge is to up the ante and volunteer every single workday. Specifically, I plan to volunteer a minimum of 3 hours each workday, or 15 hours per week, with charities that are helping people in need. Here are the organizations I’ll work with during the month:

  • Week 1 – Harvest Project is a grass-roots relief organization serving Metro Vancouver’s North Shore since 1993. Harvest Project helps individuals and families overcome difficult life circumstances so they can take positive steps to reconnect to their communities. Harvest Project provides: client care programs, including coaching, guidance and referral services; groceries at no charge through an on-site ‘store’ for clients; thrift clothing at no charge to enable clients’ re-entry into the workforce; and emergency food and personal care necessities.
  • Week 2 – Union Gospel Mission is an urban relief organization based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Founded in 1940, Union Gospel Mission is determined to transform communities by overcoming poverty, homelessness and addiction. UGM provides: meals, shelter, outreach and chaplaincy services; life recovery programs that offer freedom from addictive lifestyles; education and job preparation that equip for successful living; affordable housing; and preventative programs that build healthy families.
  • Week 3 – Habitat for Humanity Greater Vancouver is among more than 3,000 Habitat for Humanity affiliates around the world. Habitat for Humanity builds safe, decent affordable housing and promotes homeownership as a means to breaking the cycle of poverty. Houses are sold to partner families with no down-payment, and are financed with affordable, no-interest mortgages. Families invest 500 hours of their own labour, called “sweat equity,” into building their own houses and those of other families.
  • Week 4 – imagine1day is a Vancouver-based, grass-roots charity that works with communities in Ethiopia to build schools and train teachers to ensure every child in Ethiopia receives a quality education. Their vision is all Ethiopians will have access to quality education funded free of foreign aid by 2030.