Volunteerism in Community Development: Going Beyond a Helping Hand

The 2008 presidential campaign showed us another side of volunteering. It drew literally millions of people, many for the first time, into the electoral process. But beyond political campaigns, can volunteerism provide increased capacity for communities and community organizations?

Talk to Jessica Norwood, the youthful founder of the Emerging ChangeMakers Network in Mobile, Alabama, about volunteerism, and she will tell you that, in 2008, the average age of first-time homebuyers was 33, the average age of having a first child was 26, and the average age in the workforce was 40. These are the people who are settling down and getting ready to make commitments to community. She will go on to tell you, “We are promoting volunteerism as a lifestyle: a way of being and doing in the world.”

People volunteer for many reasons. Skilled medical personnel give their time to save lives in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, unemployed computer programmers set up data management systems for their local food banks, residents organize crime watch groups, college students tutor teens, and teens keep younger children out of trouble. All of these and much more are what make up “civil society.” Volunteering brings out the best in people, connects us to each other, and gets things done that might not otherwise get done.

The last presidential campaign showed us yet another side of volunteering. It drew literally millions of people, many for the first time, into the electoral process. Those who worked on the Obama campaign can attest to the level of organization that managed these volunteers, feeding data back to campaign headquarters as soon as a call to a prospective voter concluded.

By the end of that campaign, the economic recession and foreclosure crisis had hit communities across the United States like a sledgehammer. The newly unemployed joined the ranks of restless campaign volunteers looking for outlets for their time and energy. Distressed homeowners began to show up at neighborhood organizations desperate to help stabilize their neighborhoods. And many nonprofits weren’t quite sure what to do with all of these newfound volunteers.

Welcome to the world of volunteering in 2010.

Community-based development organizations hold a special place in this mix. Their missions are about revitalizing low-income communities, making them stable and healthy places for people to live. While most community development organizations focus their work on affordable housing, their stated missions beg the question: How do we engage residents?

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