Strengthening the Fabric of American Society through Volunteering

May 30, 2024

By Michael D. Smith, AmeriCorps CEO

We are thrilled to welcome AmeriCorps CEO Michael D. Smith to the mainstage of our Points of Light Conference in Houston, Texas. He will join Carol Spahn, Director of the Peace Corps, as part of the Opening Plenary to discuss the power of national service. Join us from June 11-14 to connect with social impact leaders across various sectors. Our conference empowers nonprofit, government, business, and civic leaders to make bold community impacts, offering valuable resources and inspiration. Register today!

In the complex tapestry of American history, volunteering and service have undeniably been a strong thread holding the pieces together. Our collective tapestry has been painted with tumult and trial but also with compassion and collective action. Through wars, pandemics, and economic uncertainty, Americans always turned outward with a spirit of giving that has helped us overcome every challenge.

A Nation Built on Service

From barn raisings and volunteer fire brigades to freedom riders and refugee support teams, volunteering is embedded in American history and character. Today, volunteers show up by the millions to tutor and mentor our children in schools and community centers, to feed and clothe the hungry and houseless, to care for the sick in clinics, and to rebuild after devastating natural disasters.

These volunteers run toward challenge not only because of compassion or conviction but also because they find hope, encouragement, and even personal reward in giving.

Empowering Individuals and Communities

Volunteering offers dual benefits: it enriches the lives of those who give their time and serves as a catalyst for economic and health-related advantages. Volunteers are more likely to find employment and report better health outcomes, including increased longevity and higher life satisfaction. This relationship highlights the profound impact of volunteering, both on individual lives and on broader societal health. In essence, volunteering doesn’t just add years to life, but also life to years, showcasing that the act of giving is, in itself, a reward.

Additionally, we’ve seen that national service not only hones leadership skills but serves as a vital pathway to careers in public service. A significant 82 percent of AmeriCorps members regard their service as a defining professional experience, one that has equipped them to navigate unexpected challenges in their future careers. Relative to the general workforce, AmeriCorps alumni are far more likely to pursue careers in the nonprofit, social services, or public sectors. Only a quarter of AmeriCorps members report they plan to transition into the private sector after service.

The benefits of civic engagement extend far beyond the immediate impact of individual acts of service. Communities with high levels of social capital showcase remarkable outcomes: heightened academic achievement, active and engaged citizenry, accelerated economic growth, and reduced crime rates. These communities demonstrate a remarkable resilience, better equipped to navigate economic downturns, respond to disasters, and mobilize collective action to address local challenges.

Data we’ve collected with the 2021 Census through our Volunteering and Civic Life in America research revealed that while we saw a decline during the pandemic, more than 60 million Americans still formally volunteered with nonprofit organizations, contributing 4.1 billion hours of service. This generosity translates to almost $123 billion in economic value! Moreover, an astounding 124 million people lent a helping hand to their neighbors in informal ways in 2021, including doing favors like house-sitting, watching each other’s children, lending tools, and running errands. house-sitting, watching each other’s children, lending tools, and running errands.

Findings reveal that civic behaviors are linked in a complex web that encompasses joining organizations, advocating for political issues, engaging with neighbors, and staying informed. These modes of civic engagement are deeply interconnected, suggesting that actions taken in one area can have far-reaching impacts. This research underscores the powerful ripple effects that can emanate from even a single act of service, highlighting its potential to strengthen the very foundations of our democracy.

From Inspiration to Action

The journey from charity to justice is also central to the volunteering experience. It’s about turning interest into action, growing from spectator to advocate, and moving beyond wanting to help out to wanting to understand root causes and systemic solutions. And no matter who you are, where you live, or what you do, there is a way for you to take action today.

  • If you are a corporation, consider joining Employers of National Service and partnering with nonprofit organizations and state service commissions to provide matching dollars to increase benefits for national service members.
  • If you are a university, consider joining Schools of National Service to attract students with real-world service experience to your degree programs.
  • If you are running a volunteer center, a foodbank, or a shelter, AmeriCorps can be a force multiplier to help you reach more people. Consider applying for a grant through AmeriCorps VISTA to bring on additional staff capacity or the Volunteer Generation Fund to help recruit, retain, and manage volunteers.
  • Nonprofit organizations of any size can consider applying for a AmeriCorps State and National grant to make an even bigger impact on your mission.
  • And if you’re an individual who cares about your community and making the world a better place, consider serving as an AmeriCorps member or an AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer.

A Brilliant Tapestry of Givers

The joy and fulfillment derived from helping others is at the core of American life. As we celebrate AmeriCorps’ 30th anniversary, we’re reminded of the transformative power of service. This occasion not only prompts reflection on past achievements but also inspires a forward-looking vision of continued commitment to communal well-being and social impact.

The story of American volunteerism is one of individuals and communities coming together to strengthen and transform communities. It is a powerful force that fosters unity and builds character, creating a ripple effect that can transform our society for the better.

Michael D. Smith