January is often a time for self-reflection, when we resolve to improve our lives in the New Year ahead. We come up with fitness goals or decide to quit smoking or vow to spend more time with family and friends. We also think about what we can do to make a difference in the world by helping people in need.
In my work through four decades of public service and volunteerism in Los Angeles, I have met thousands of people who want to get involved, to engage in a purpose larger than themselves, to move off the couch of complacency to a more substantial role in their communities.
Human nature, though, causes us to make promises to ourselves we rarely keep. This is not easy stuff, so we can get stuck, not knowing where to begin. We are too distracted and busy. Like the diets and other promises that don't make it past the enthusiastic conceptual phase, we fall back into the rushing traffic of life and Groundhog Day begins again.
America's collective ability to give and volunteer has not grown with our prosperity and awareness of need. We currently give at the same rate we did in 1971. Volunteering has also remained pretty much the same and is sharply down recently at 25 percent. So regardless of whether we have more time and money, when there are extraordinary needs in the world--we just do what we have always done. Not sure if we are in the rut or the groove? Good news is we are consistent. Bad news is there is no growth in our generosity no matter what happens.
In Los Angeles alone, an increase in giving of .1 percent of incomes of current donors would result in $250 million in new philanthropy. If each of us who volunteer engaged one new volunteer we would double the volunteer pool! Small changes can make a big difference.
But maybe we all need more of an incentive to get off our couches.
We already know that volunteering and giving can actually help us live longer. This evidence of longevity and well-being are insufficient for many. Like most opportunities, we fall into volunteering because someone asks. We rarely attempt to design the experience around our needs as well.
But in fact, volunteering can enhance your professional goals and help hone specific skills. With a little effort you can do good, feel good and even advance your career.
This is where our common interest meets your self-interest.
I was once approached by an engineer at one of the world's largest tech companies seeking advice on how to chart a new career path in marketing. He said, "Don't tell me to get an MBA!" I told him to think about his favorite nonprofit organization, go knock on its door and ask to volunteer for its marketing committee. People don't do this. I said that if he attended three meetings in a row, he'd probably be vice chairman of that committee since most volunteers don't attend three meetings in a row. He would ask smart questions and help the organization be more effective in marketing. Along the way, he would gain invaluable experience for his resume, while contributing to a cause he was passionate about. We both laughed.
A number of years later, he wrote me to say he took my advice, but I was wrong. He didn't become vice chairman of the marketing committee, he became chairman. His boss noticed his volunteer chairmanship on his professional development plan and he became director of marketing at his firm!
Most people view this desire to give back as "charity." The arrogant thought that people in need deserve our help. What we neglect to understand is that we need to engage our hearts, minds and yes, our pocketbooks, because it helps us too.
Once you fully make the transition from giving as an act of charity to the needy, to an act of replenishment of our community and your soul--and maybe even your resume--you might make a commitment you will stick with.
When I was younger and more certain about the way things work, I became a Big Brother to "save" an "at-risk" youth. After working in maximum security institutions with juvenile felons, I wanted to generously share all of my worldly blessings with a needy fatherless boy. Long story short, after 9.5 years as a volunteer mentor with the same young man, he saved me. I think I helped my little brother along the way--we know mentoring makes a difference. But what I got as the mentor was immeasurable compared to what I gave. It turned the table of life around on me. I realized that I needed volunteer service as much, perhaps more, than my little brother. I became a better parent, better manager and I hope a more compassionate person.
It taught me that my self-interest was intertwined with our common interest.
- What are my unfulfilled passions?
- What difference do I want to make?
- What are causes or issues that must be addressed and what are the best organizations doing this work?
Listen to your heart and take great notes. Make a commitment to take steps to find your path and the right place to engage your talent and your generous spirit. Volunteerism and giving has taken me on a journey of people and places that I could never have imagined. It has enhanced my career, but most importantly, it has given purpose and meaning to my life.
We should all eat better, lose a few pounds and exercise more. And what we all really need to do is give more. We need it and you need it.
Here are some tools to help you find volunteer opportunities in your region: United Way.org, VolunteerMatch.org, Idealist.org and AllForGood.org.
John E. Kobara is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the California Community Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @jekobara.