The U.S. nonprofit sector includes many large, established and well-run organizations that improve life in the community through programs addressing local, regional and national issues. Organizations in the nonprofit sector rely on donations of money and volunteer work. Volunteers are rewarded with personal satisfaction of meaningful work, and can also build work skills and gain experience for career development.
Nonprofits in the U.S. are separate from the government. They are also very different from the for-profit private sector, which includes businesses and operates with the objective of making money. Instead, nonprofits rely on philanthropy to accomplish their goals. Philanthropy is the act of giving money, things or efforts to support a good cause and improve a group of people’s quality of life. The government and a number of businesses have philanthropy offices that fund nonprofits.
People who grow up in the U.S. often learn to support nonprofits from an early age. They see their parents giving money, donating used clothing and helping in community events. Children also learn through school activities, such as donating toys, bringing in cans of food – even working at fundraising events such as bake sales and car washes. As these children reach high school, they are encouraged to participate in more complex programs such as mentoring a young child who needs help, helping with larger fundraising events like supporting soldiers overseas, or visiting nursing homes to help the elderly.
Why get involved in giving back to society?
There are a variety of reasons that people get involved in non-profit activities – perhaps to meet new people, improve the environment they live in, or simply give back to the community. Many donors and volunteers say they feel a strong, deep personal satisfaction and fulfillment from helping others and seeing the differences they make in the community. Volunteering can also improve your mental and physical health. Experts report that when you focus on someone other than yourself, it breaks typical tension-producing patterns; thus positive moods and emotions generated from volunteering can even strengthen your immune system. Lastly, getting involved enhances both empathy for others and your self-esteem through understanding the challenges your community and other individuals face.
Volunteering can also help you build work skills and gain experience for career development. It’s an opportunity to try working in a new field and to quickly build a network of supporters and professional contacts. One of my friends had been a lawyer in China before moving to America with her husband. She knew she would be unable to compete for professional roles in the U.S. until she learned how offices and business operate in a different culture.
She volunteered at two nonprofits for the first year of her U.S. career. She credits those volunteer jobs with helping her learn the ins and outs of American culture, understanding business office norms, building her professional confidence and most of all, meeting the people who later helped her professional career. A year after arriving in the U.S., she asked several of her nonprofit managers to be professional references when she was competing for a job in an international law firm. She was hired not only based on her previous work experience in China, but also for the glowing recommendations.
According to Nicole Williams, LinkedIn’s Connection Director, “Even if you’re currently unemployed, you can still actively volunteer and begin to accrue new skill sets. When hiring managers or business partners are comparing two people side by side, volunteer experience makes you a more multifaceted professional and can set you apart from the competition.”
How to get involved?
The most common way people support nonprofits is through charitable donations, which usually means giving useful household items or money. If you are considering making a donation, first determine your motivations and goals concerning giving. For example, you may want to support a particular nonprofit, a specific project, a specific issue, or simply help the local community. Research the organizations you want to support: look at their website, review their publications or annual reports, or talk with their staff members. Feel free to ask charities or nonprofits how they intend to spend your money; it shows that you care about how your money is being used and gives you a better understanding of what the organization does.
Many people also donate their time and energy through unpaid work. Choose an issue you care about. Are you interested in arts, youth development, health, homelessness, education, etc.? Research and pick nonprofit organizations in your areas of interest. In the meantime, also identify skills and talents that you as a volunteer can bring to the table. Perhaps consider what you most enjoy doing to help your own family and use that as a starting point. Are you most interested in volunteering directly with people or in an office helping at a special event? Consider making volunteering a social outing: encourage friends, family, business associates, and neighbors to join you.
Another great way to get involved is to get a job with a nonprofit. In the nonprofit sector, there are many opportunities that may not only matter to you but also can help you earn money. Many nonprofits are constantly exploring ways to become more diverse and inclusive by building a staff with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. You may consider starting as an unpaid volunteer, intern or consultant to learn more about the organization, and also for them to get to know you.
Volunteer work is rapidly changing from long term, low skill jobs to short term, high skill assignments. Technology advances enable this change. Much like online dating, companies such as Sparked.com and Catchafire.org take an individual’s preferences and find volunteer projects for them that are tailored to skills and interests. Furthermore, for-profit companies are expected to expand their volunteering programs. These programs not only benefit the community and build employee satisfaction, but also develop critical thinking and leadership skills more effectively than traditional classroom training sessions.
There are many great sources of information about U.S. nonprofits on the Internet.
- Charity Navigator www.charitynavigator.com
- GuideStar www.guidestar.org
- AmeriCorps www.americorps.org
- Idealist www.idealist.org
- Network for Good www.networkforgood.org
- Points of Light Foundation www.pointsoflight.org
- The Volunteer Connection www.thevolunteerconnection.com