Yes, you can make a difference

Those who volunteer learn that it provides multiple payoffs.

By

The proud smile of a first-grader who suddenly "gets" a math problem; the beaming face of a shut-in as she receives a long-awaited volunteer visitor; the opportunity for a disabled veteran to attend a Redskins game, escaping the hard realities of his hospital stay; and the relief etched on the faces of children as they enjoy a shower and warm meal in a Red Cross facility following a disaster. These are a few examples of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who felt the touch and support of a volunteer this year.

As Thanksgiving approaches and families and friends gather for a relaxing celebration, some may feel that the past year – marked by depreciating portfolios, falling house prices, and perhaps even a job loss – has left little reason for joy.

But rather than focusing on negatives, Americans should consider ways to tap their passions, interests, and talents to help others.

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The opportunities are widespread. Many are concentrated in education, healthcare, senior citizen support, and community services such as food banks, nature conservancy, and clean energy. With the excitement of an Obama administration powered by change and fueled by the cry, "Yes we can," a new volunteerism movement may sweep this country.

"Young people entering college this year expressed an off-the-charts interest in serving their community," says Bob Grimm, director of research and policy development for the Corporation for National and Community Service (nationalservice.gov), an independent federal agency that supports community service groups.

People of all generations can add value to their lives and others by volunteering. Boomers, with their skills and experience, are potentially powerful volunteers.

"Volunteering as an endpoint is no longer financially viable for many boomers given their economic pressures," says Stefanie Weiss, vice president of communications for Civic Ventures, a think tank on social purpose in San Francisco. "However, volunteering can be a terrific assistance to identifying an encore career that combines personal meaning, social impact, and income."

The opportunity to gain insight into other careers, make valuable contacts, gain experience, or test a new job can provide important payoffs in today's troubled employment markets. Volunteering may provide skills that could help a volunteer reengineer their career, creating a successful segue to a new job in the nonprofit or government sectors.

In a recent AARP survey of Americans age 44 to 79, the traditional desire to help people in need was cited as a key motivation for volunteer service. More than half of respondents also indicated that proposed awards of $1,000 or more that can be used or transferred to an education savings account for a child or grandchild would also be a powerful motivator to do volunteer work. Offering volunteers access to affordable healthcare would also serve as a major incentive.

A lack of time, the need to make money, and limited information on how to volunteer were recited as barriers by those who had yet to participate. A remarkable 80 percent of those surveyed indicated they would volunteer, if asked, as long as such a commitment was scheduled on a flexible basis.

Those willing to serve four to six hours – a weekend morning or afternoon – each month, can get started by checking out the following websites:

volunteermatch.org – A matching service that helps people find places to volunteer. More than 61,000 nonprofits have used it to recruit volunteers and employees.

idealist.org – A place to find jobs, volunteer opportunities, internships, resources, and events in the nonprofit sector.

civicventures.org – A site geared to boomers looking to use their experience to address social problems in areas including education, healthcare, the environment, and homelessness. It also supports encore.org, a site that helps boomers to network with nonprofits.

experiencecorps.org – A program that helps adults over 55 mentor children in their communities.

Dr. Kathleen Connell is a professor at Haas Graduate Business School, University of California, Berkeley.

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