I started my professional non-profit career with the Sioux Empire United Way on Jan. 2, 2000. At that time, it was suggested that I read the book by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. As the title suggests, it was not a glowing review on how today’s society interacts and connects with one another. Putnam spends a great deal of time exploring the idea of social capital as he defines “the connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” Putnam uses a blend of sociology, economics, and social work to state that our society is not as connected as we once were, and we do not volunteer as much for civic clubs or for nonprofits. Armed with this knowledge, I moved forward into a career where social connections and a genuine trust of one another are of fundamental importance.
If I have learned anything in my 20 plus years working in the non-profit sector, it is that, fundamentally, people are good and want to help. I personally believe this attitude is heightened in the Midwest where you are never more than two steps away from knowing someone from (insert SD town here).
Typically, the United Way receives a call every other week that begins with “I/we would like to volunteer, what is available?” Our typical response is “what are you interested in helping with in our community?” Invariably, this leads into a conversation of what drives this individual to help. Many times it is because they were taught the value of helping others. Their lesson may have come from receiving help at one time or learned through the action of helping others. Our schools from elementary through higher education all have a volunteer component or service-learning opportunities that stress the importance of giving back to our community. Serving, giving, and helping are teachable traits that can be passed along to the next generation.
The best volunteer opportunities are typically just a phone call or web search away. Most not-for-profits have some type of volunteer experience from board membership to bake sales. Some opportunities are individualized while others have you join hundreds of volunteers like at the Brown County Fair where the concessions at the Fair entertainment have over 800 volunteer positions available.
Tips before volunteering:
- Know what fills your cup. Meaning, if teaching children is your passion, find a non-profit that works in that field.
- Be clear on expectations and time commitments.
- Attitude is everything, remember when things stop being rewarding it might be time to find a new path.
After 20 plus years in this business, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Putnam. Good people find good things to do. We help when called upon, and we have the potential to be more connected than ever if we so choose. There are any number of opportunities to get involved; it just takes the first step.
To find volunteer opportunities, you can simply call the non-profit you are interested in helping. You can also find opportunities at www.chamberforgood.com/aberdeen or contact the United Way office. //