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Make It Matter - The Volunteer Continuum

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Mar 21, 2017
by Sienna Schied

Ready to know how far you've progressed along the continuum already? Jump to the quiz.

You can get better at being a volunteer. That might sound a little strange, especially because we typically don't value volunteering as a skill.  But you've actually experienced this if you have made the transition from not doing anything to the act of attending your first volunteer event. In a sense, you became a little better at being a volunteer in that first experience.

Doing something enough will inevitably lead to some level of skill, even donating your time and abilities. It's kind of like a job - which we all appreciate the ways in which we can  become better at that! But better volunteering is not exactly becoming more efficient or productive or punctual. It's not even knowing more people or having a greater social awareness. All of these are mostly byproducts of a grander development: you.

Similar to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the pyramid that begins with survival and tops out at self-actualization, volunteering is a process of honing in on yourself. The experiences of volunteering help you to challenge yourself and your values, and in the process redefine and discover your inner workings. This journey, as outlined by BreakAway (a nonprofit providing resources for collegiate level alternative breaks), has four stages. Perhaps the easiest way to understand them is through a narrative, so I've created a story to help you understand the evolution of being a volunteer!

Take any social issue (in this case, lack of sticks) and start to think about it's importance in your life. At the first stage, member, we tend to be either unaware or lacking motivation to address problems. It may be for good reason: busy lives, higher personal priorities, apathy, or even fear. Some issues seem too big, distant, unrelatable, or confusing. In the case if this dog, it has a home and a stick to play fetch… what's to worry about?

Somehow our interest is piqued. This is the second stage, or volunteer, when we begin to address a social inequity, like the lack of sticks! Our first attempts to offer help are usually small and infrequent, but very well intended. Usually, however, these acts don't really address the root of a problem, but rather it's symptoms. And, despite best efforts, our actions are relatively ineffective and sometimes downright useless. The dog is doing it's best to replace sticks by using it's stick to try and grow new ones. Being a bit uneducated (understandably!), this isn't going to do anything. But it shows a big heart.

The third stage is all about sleuthing. This is the ascent to conscientious citizen! By this point we've realized that our actions aren't as impactful as we'd hoped. We're also becoming pretty passionate about the problem and the people it's effecting. Now we hit the books and the internet, start to network with experts, and take some of the matters into our own hands. This dog is sniffing out the cause behind the stick shortage - lumber harvested for dog houses. It's also learning how to replace the timber.

Finally! The final stage. The glory of becoming an active citizen. By this point the causes you've been working on have morphed you so much that they're part of the way you live. This dog has journeyed from being uninterested to a champion of sticks. Along the way it discovered where they were going, how to replace them, and then extended that knowledge to reshape how it lives. Did you notice the bird even got it's own home in lieu of the shortage of nest-building material?


Although this probably seems simple, it usually takes years and a lot of dedication. But, once you find an issue that sparks your passion you won't have any trouble taking this journey. It's also important to note that you may be an active citizen within one social movement, but an absolute member with another. Just because you're very involved in, say, education doesn't mean you've ever even thought about animal rights.

So, while you might not be an active citizen with every issue, you can definitely become one with a few. This might be a better use of your time - since addressing all of them wouldn't leave you the time or peace of mind to do much else. Luckily, the journey will help you treat issues in which you know nothing with respect and interest. You'll learn oodles about yourself, meet inspiring people, and leave your legacy on positive social change. The only way to find that passion is to step out of being a member and into the continuum!

Wonder where you are (generally) on the continuum? This nifty quiz can help you find out!