Improving the Quantity and Quality of America’s Volunteerism

Brian Fikkert

Volunteerism dropped in 2015, continuing a decade-long trend in which the percentage of adults who volunteer has declined by a total of 3.9 percentage points. Regrettably, these recent declines are part of a century-long decrease in rates of volunteerism in America,[1] a trend rooted in fundamental issues that hinder not only the quantity, but also the quality of our volunteerism.

One of the most important of these issues is widespread materialism: the belief that happiness comes from acquiring more possessions. Although the seeds of materialism have been present since America’s inception, a combination of philosophical, economic, and social forces in the past century has resulted in a culture that is increasingly focused on material progress as the source of happiness.[2]

Materialism is necessarily self-centered, while volunteerism is others-centered. Hence, it is not surprising that researchers are finding materialistic people to be less likely to volunteer — a fact that explains at least some of the decline in the quantity of volunteerism in America.[3] But materialism also affects the quality of our volunteerism. For example, consider volunteerism targeted at alleviating poverty.

Because Americans tend to think of poverty in material terms, our approaches to helping the poor often tend toward merely providing them with material resources: dispensing food, ladling soup, and giving out clothing. In times of crisis, such handouts are the appropriate response, but when low-income individuals or communities are in a chronic state of poverty, this approach amounts to treating symptoms rather than addressing the underlying causes of their condition. There are deeper forces at work that must be addressed.

If we listen carefully to the poor, we can hear them longing for more than just greater consumption, for they commonly express feelings of shame, inferiority, social isolation, and powerlessness. These problems involve far more than a lack of material things, and simply handing out more material resources cannot solve them.

While human beings are partly material — we have bodies and real physical needs — both the wisdom of the ages and scientific evidence teach us that human beings are hardwired for relationships: with God, self, others, and the environment.[4] More often than not, it is the brokenness in these foundational relationships that leads to material poverty, but these relationships cannot be repaired by handouts of material resources alone.[5] In fact, handouts can make these relationships worse.

Simply providing handouts of material resources to poor people can exacerbate their feelings of shame and inferiority and undermine the development of their own skills and resources. As a result, handouts can render poor people even more powerless than they were before they received the “help.”

Short-term trips to low-income communities abroad often provide prime examples of this dynamic. Volunteers rush in to build houses and dig wells — things that the community could do on its own — thereby undermining local initiative, ownership, and stewardship. Similarly, such trips often dispense clothing and shoes, which can undermine local businesses and create dependence on the outsiders.[6]

Evidence and experience show that we need to use more relational approaches, walking alongside poor people instead of treating them as objects of our assistance.[7] This engages poor people as full participants in the process, building on their assets and abilities in order to restore their dignity and capacity. The goal in such an approach is not simply to increase the material condition of poor people, but also to help them experience greater flourishing in their relationships with God, self, others, and the environment.

One example is the Circles of Support model.[8] In this approach, the poor person chooses and leads a team of “allies” who surround the person with encouragement, community, accountability, and various forms of assistance. In addition, the allies provide access to crucial social and professional networks and can even provide advocacy when systemic injustice is an issue.

One key to more and better volunteerism is the rejection of materialism in favor of a relational understanding of human nature. As we make this shift, we open up possibilities for greater human flourishing both for the helpers and for those who are being helped.

Brian Fikkert is Founder and President of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.

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  1. Marvin Olasky, “Volunteering: A Fraying Bond in American Society,” in 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity, ed. Jennifer A. Marshall and Christine Kim (Washington: The Heritage Foundation, 2015), p. 33.
  2. Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Elise C. Freeman, “Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966–2009,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 102, No. 5 (May 2012), pp. 1045–1062.
  3. Yujie Wei, Naveen Donthu, and Kenneth L. Bernhardt, “Volunteerism of Older Adults in the United States,” International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing, Vol. 9, Issue 1 (May 2012), pp. 1–18; Ellen Briggs, Tim Landry, and Charles Wood, “Beyond Just Being There: An Examination of the Impact of Attitudes, Materialism, and Self-Esteem on the Quality of Helping Behavior in Youth Volunteers,” Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing, Vol. 18, Issue 2 (July 2007), pp. 27–45.
  4. For example, see Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006); Commission on Children at Risk, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities (New York: Institute for American Values, 2003).
  5. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012).
  6. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, with Katie Casselberry, Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions Leaders Guide (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).
  7. Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts.
  8. Ibid., pp. 210–213.

© 2016 by The Heritage Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity

The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America

2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity

The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America

Heritage Foundation

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2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity

The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America