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November 8, 1993

Volunteer Nation

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On a visit to the West Coast one time, I heard Matt Emerzian, formerly an ambitious player in the music business, tell me his story of what happened when he drifted into the gravitational pull of helping others. It started when he was doing artist management for the likes of Coldplay, Avril Lavigne, and Bono and then inexplicably began having panic attacks. His therapist showed him the first line of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life: “It’s not about you.” Then she told him to start helping others.
To say that he was resistant to the advice at first would be to put it mildly. Nevertheless, he did what his therapist had suggested, going to poorer neighborhoods and picking up litter, painting over graffiti, and such. Eventually it clicked. Not only did he became a happier and more content person by taking his focus off himself and putting it on others who were less fortunate than he, but also he began to understand how much all of us, if we work together, can change the world for the better. He was motivated to write a book called Every Monday Matters, describing fifty-two down-to-earth strategies for making a difference each Monday of the year. He still practices regular acts of kindness toward others, and I still love hearing about it.
Emerzian was hooked by volunteerism. He’s far from the first.
America has a volunteering tradition unique among the nations, as has been noticed since Alexis de Tocqueville famously called us “a nation of joiners” in social enterprises. The tradition continues today … and seems to be expanding. According to U.S. government statistics,
• In 2011, the number of volunteers reached its highest level in five years, as 64.3 million Americans volunteered through an organization, an increase of 1.5 million from 2010.
• Americans volunteered a total of almost 8 billion hours, an estimated economic value of roughly $171 billion.
• A majority of Americans assisted their neighbors in some way and more than a third actively participated in a civic, religious, or school group.
Americans give away around $300 billion dollars every year through corporate giving, foundation giving, and private giving. If the government statistics about the value of American volunteerism in 2011—$171 billion—is correct, then volunteerism contributes more than half as much economic value as do financial donations. And volunteerism offers the personal connection that giving away your cash inevitably lacks. Volunteerism is a powerhouse however you measure it.
I think of volunteerism as encompassing all of the nonmonetary aspects of generosity. In the biggest sense, volunteering is everything you do in a more personal way than writing a check to help others. What this means is that the dimensions of your bank account are not all that matter to your generosity. So do the dimensions of your heart.
All of us, whether we’ve been working in generosity a little or a lot, need to stop from time to time and gauge what’s happening inside our hearts.

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