Why Don't We Volunteer?

An examination of twentysomethings' non-involvement in volunteerism—and how we can do better.

Charitable societies and associations born during the depression years of the 1930s are losing their appeal with our generation. We aren’t interested in having bake sales and sending checks to the American Red Cross. We want to give our own energy and personal resources directly to those in need. We don’t want to hand our money over to towering bureaucracies. We would rather donate time in volunteerism.

We’re a complex generation with some significant strengths and weaknesses. One of our greatest attributes is our energy for and interest in helping others. Yet, according to a 2003 Barna Research Group study, only 24 percent of Gen-Xers (ages 20-38) volunteered at a nonprofit other than a church in the week prior to the study, compared with 31 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 39-57) and 27 percent of Elders (ages 58+). 

The time factor

What’s the explanation for our low rate? Perhaps the most frequently noted problem is the simple lack of time we have to consistently donate in service. Most twentysomethings are busy people—we want to do it all, so we fill our hyper-schedules with demanding careers, hobbies, social activities and diversions of all sorts. When all is said and done, we have very little time to spare, so while we still feel the call to serve, we are at a loss for how to fit this into our daily lives.

We do know one thing for certain—we surely don’t want to join the kind of bureaucratic charitable organizations that require spending more time in planning meetings than engaging in hands-on service of those in need.

Because of our sparse spare time, busy twentysomethings who want to volunteer gravitate toward what has been called “episodic volunteering”—short, power-packed service projects that fit into our schedules and allow us the kinds of hands-on experiences we are looking for.

The larger issues

But there are larger, deeper issues complicating the matter of volunteerism among young adults—issues that need to be understood if service organizations, and would-be volunteers themselves, want to better serve those in need. Many of us in our 20s have been taught that it is good to help the poor, the sick, the suffering—but we aren’t exactly sure, on a fundamental level, why we should volunteer, how we should volunteer or what volunteering will accomplish.

It is the mixed-up idealism of the popular desire to “save the world” that gets us into trouble in the first place, causing our efforts to shipwreck. “Idealism is the thought that if only this happens, then everything will be right with the world,” said Cranford Joseph Coulter of The King’s Jubilee, a “frontline” ministry that serves the poor in Jesus’ name. “That’s just not true. Jesus said there will be poor always.”

Instead, Coulter said, we must realize that our purpose as Christians is not to change the world, but to work within God’s will to humbly serve all those around us. All humans are made in the image and likeness of God—and all people have the capacity to learn and teach, love and be loved, give off Jesus’ light or not. Christian volunteers must embrace this before they can grow into mature servants.

But it’s not easy for us to see others in the image and likeness of God—and often, the idealism many of us start with burns out into a jaded cynicism. We twentysomethings are characteristically cynical—we tend not to trust that real change can happen. And if it can happen, we think it can happen on only a small scale.

Going grassroots

Because of this attitude, smaller organizations that maintain a sort of grassroots ruggedness are more likely to attract younger volunteers. These locally-based organizations appeal to twentysomethings because they allow us cynical idealists to see that our work impacts people’s lives in a genuine way.

Grassroots organizations like Sugartree Ministries (located on Sugartree Street in Wilmington, Ohio) have a different approach to serving those in need than the more bureaucratic charitable organizations. Sugartree’s purpose as a small “street ministry” is to go out into the community and meet the needy—the poor, the elderly, the lost, the addicts—right where they are.

Sugartree, and other ministries like it, strive to avoid the judgmental tone that often comes across when charities opt for a service model that exchanges handouts for promises of changed ways. Reverend John Foster, co-founder of Sugartree, feels a different approach is more effective. “Today it’s befriend first, then make a person feel safe. No strings attached,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words.”

“We call ourselves a street ministry because we feel we have brought Jesus Christ to the streets,” said Allen Willoughby, Sugartree’s other co-founder. “Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and visit the captives, and this is our mission—to reach out to the ones Jesus spoke of.” Presently, Sugartree feeds about 100 to 150 families a week, gives out 300 bags of clothing and sees an average of 50 people in their soup kitchen.

Volunteer turnover

But no matter how successful organizations like Sugartree Ministries are at attracting young volunteers, they all face a significant problem—the lack of so-called “volunteer retention.”

“People want charity to be an experience … it’s about us communing with them and becoming one, which happens briefly, as folks gather together and smile and laugh with each other for a couple hours,” said Eric Hamrin, 26, a staff member of Catholic Charities in Minneapolis, Minn. “And then the middle class hops on the interstate back to the burbs and the poor folk walk down the sidewalk hustling some dope money.”

Volunteer commitment (or lack thereof) is a problem that all ministries struggle with—only a handful have stuck with Sugartree, for example, over the six years of its existence. “Most people find out the difference between service and being patted on the back,” Foster said. “People have to understand this type of ministry isn’t one where there will be a reward on Earth.”

Taking action

Those with a heart to serve must take small steps—however insignificant they may seem—in getting involved if they want to develop into mature servants. “Go out and do something, anything, whatever,” Coulter said. “And then God will show you what you want to be doing, even if it’s small—something tangible, something real.” 

31 Comments

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jocelynswalm commented…

I love this article. It is not about the quick fix it is about commitment to something greater. It might be commiting to sending that check in the mail once a month or volunteering at your church once a week. But I don't think Christ ever intended service to be a quick hit mission trip. Relationships with Christ and with people take time so we need to quite over commiting in the silly things and focus on commiting to furthering the Lord's kingdom. Thats all :) Thank you for this article.

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emmerised commented…

I loved your idea, but could not find FIFTY-TWO. Please reply with deets or link. Thanks!!

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April commented…

I'm 26 and i have the passion and drive to volunteer but i'm unemployed but i still find time to volunteer but i still think theres stereo typing in the U.S. way of life i don't always get as many opportunities as me or others my age feel there should be for people 18+ and i'm speaking of in the Assemblies of God mainly the district acts as if your 18+ they "automatically think" all your gonna do is work and get married the end....... this is far from the truth for tons of people that go to the 18+life groups they all wish that the district would have more things for 18+ college age students trips, retreats, missions and etc.We shouldn't be eliminated just because where not under 18+ anymore the leaders shouldn't worry about who's working and who's not they should have an outlet for those feeling their calling from God or passion to do continue doing such things shouldn't be inhibited just because u reach a certain age i know the district has rules to protect minors from adults, but cutting off everything u were passionate about doing while going to youth group as a H.S. shouldn't have to happen........ its like were being punished to have reached the age of being legal....... or its like the district thinks were to old to still do things for God... this has caused tension for me at church.............bottom line is there needs to be more opportunities for ppl 18+ I know my generation still likes to have a good time and ppl have got to realize that yes we aren't high schoolers anymore but some of us are gonna be single and have time into our 30s I know im not ready to settle down... Where still a forgotten age group at most of American churches its either your -18 go to youth group or 18+ go to regular church which isn't bad in it self but there should still be something more for this often forgotten age of life.

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laban isaiya commented…

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