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Tech & Social Impact: Why should we volunteer?

Published November 26, 2018

This is the first in a series of posts about how folks who work in tech can be superheroes of social impact in their own backyards - wherever that might be, no matter how busy they are, and no matter their specific skills.

Let's examine why we should care about volunteering in this first post.




In 2015, one in four people in the U.S. volunteered for a total of 8 billion hours, which was valued at an estimated $184 billion in output (source).

That might seem like a lot, but it still means 75 percent of Americans didn't volunteer in all of 2015 (and the government's criterion for being counted as a "volunteer" only requires someone to have given a single hour all year). 

This is concerning, because even cursory searches of volunteer-matching sites show there's a clear and consistent need for skilled tech volunteers nationwide. 

But there's also a high demand for paid tech workers, so why should we take time out of our busy lives to give something away for free?

As it turns out, there are multiple concrete reasons to volunteer, above and beyond making the world a better place.

Let's look at four of them.

1. Volunteers make more money.

Fact: folks who regularly volunteer make more money than those who don't. 

According to Psychology Today, it’s because of what are called “weak ties." Strong ties refer to people you know well - think your family members, friends, colleagues - with whom you likely share similar viewpoints and have access to similar resources and information. 

Weak ties, on the other hand, refer to people you know tangentially; think the fellow parent you occasionally run into at school events, or the developer you sometimes chat with at the local JavaScript meetup.

The argument goes that weak ties are actually much more influential on your life than strong ties, because they're your connection to a plethora of larger networks and resources, and in turn, provide access to new information, ideas and career opportunities. 

In particular, Granovetter showed that people with weak ties not only find jobs that the rest of the tight network cannot see, but those jobs come with higher compensation and satisfaction. This is especially true for higher-educated workers, like your typical engineer. Because more than 40 percent of jobs are found through referrals, understanding weak ties is an important factor for both job seekers and recruiters.

TechCrunch

Volunteering is an excellent way to build those weak ties, as we'll discuss a bit further down. (In fact, the next two reasons to volunteer both contribute to increased income.)

2. Volunteering can level up your career.

Eighty-two percent of people with direct or indirect hiring influence want to see skills-based volunteering on resumes, and even more (85 percent) say if they see volunteering, they're more willing to overlook resume "flaws" (source).

Guess how many people actually include volunteering on their resumes?

Only 30 percent. 😱

I recently volunteered for a technical interviewing practice session at a nearby university, and multiple students told me they were advised to leave volunteering off their resumes to create more room for technical experience (even if that experience were subpar or tangential). Based on the data above, this seems misguided.

But why do companies value volunteering so highly?

Furthermore, volunteering may not just help you land a job – it might also help you grow your career. Survey results indicate that skills learned through volunteering may make it easier for people to move into leadership roles.

2016 Deloitte Impact Survey

Between 80 percent and 92 percent of those aforementioned hiring influencers said volunteers were more likely than non-volunteers to possess the following:

  • communication skills
  • strong character traits
  • accountability and commitment
  • leadership skills
  • broad professional skill sets

3. Volunteers build wider and stronger personal communities.

In tech, we often hear "we are not our users." 

What does this mean?

For one, we're likely to be much whiter, wealthier, more educated and more male than the average American. This means we ultimately build software best suited to educated, financially stable white men, at the expense of pretty much everyone else.

A great way to combat that homogeneity?

Volunteer!

Volunteers are exposed to parts of society that they might not otherwise have encountered.

Social Impact of Volunteerism

Through my volunteer work at a local development bootcamp run by the YWCA, for example, I've gotten to know a whole slew of people with experiences I hadn't directly encountered much before (if ever), including single parents, refugees, folks with chronic illness, middle-aged people who'd never owned a computer, and so many more. 

These connections - this community-building - is not only important for point No. 1 (expanding your weak ties), but also for increasing your awareness of experiences outside your own.

And volunteers themselves agree: 79 percent of volunteers who responded to the National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (NSGVP) said their volunteer work helped them:

  • understand people better
  • motivate others
  • deal with difficult situations

[Volunteers develop] a better ability … to identify and understand problems in the community.

Social Impact of Volunteerism

 This ability is crucial for being successful in tech, no matter your role within the industry. Successful products efficiently solve a problem as yet not properly addressed; if you don't see the problems or can't understand them, you'll never be able to create a viable solution.

4. Volunteers are healthier (and live longer!)

This is one of my favorites. Folks who volunteer - especially before and after retirement - live longer than those who don't. 

Why?

For one thing, volunteering strongly correlates with lower risk of depression, heart attack and stroke, and with higher life satisfaction and physical health (source, source). There are various theories as to why, but a big part of it centers around how volunteering makes us feel:

Volunteering creates a sense of self-worthiness and instills self-esteem. It gives the very important feeling of being needed.

Social Impact of Volunteerism

When we feel needed, or as though others depend on us, our sense of self-worth increases. And the more we value ourselves, the better we take care of ourselves. 

In fact, a high sense of purpose is associated with lower risk of dying from literally "any cause" (source). 

A wider community also means more support to turn to in tough times, and more folks to notice if something seems off.

And for retirees?

During later life, volunteering is even more beneficial for one's health than exercising and eating well.

Psychology Today

Whoa.

In conclusion

Volunteering (especially skills-based volunteering) positively impacts your income, career, and personal and professional community, and it helps you live longer. Seems like a win-win!

But trying to get started is often the hardest part. In the next post in our "Tech and Social Impact" series, we'll explore the wide variety of different ways that folks with tech and tech-adjacent skills can use those skills to volunteer.

Author details

Hilary Stohs-Krause

Software developer
@hilarysk