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Volunteering: Going Far Together

Day of service at Martha's Table
Left to right in the photo: Paul Long, Mohammad Khasawinah, Chris McDaniel, Lindsey Etringer, Rex Wingard, Summer Brooks, Becky Gillan, Rachel Mueh, John Wanko, Emily Swanson, Gregory Macias. Missing from photo: Walter Williams

September 11 was AARP's annual Day of Service where all employees can volunteer their time and talents to a charity of their choice. Along with 10 other AARP employees, I volunteered at Martha's Table, a 33-year-old Washington, DC charity that, among other projects, feeds 1,100 people daily, many of them homeless. They also run a preschool and after school program for children from low income families.  As the Food Prep Volunteers, we chopped our way through what seemed like bottomless bins of tomatoes, peppers, onions, okra, and squash for about three hours. A couple of us (i.e., me) were even lucky enough to wash the dishes from the chicken stew that was the day's meal.

In a post-Day of Service survey, I was asked what I got most out of the day and my selection was, "Because I was helping fulfill a need." AARP's 2012 Civic Engagement Survey also echoes that same reason for volunteering with the top five reasons people give for volunteering (all selected by 70% or more as important):

  1. A way of giving back
  2. Personal responsibility to help those in need
  3. Helps own neighborhood/community
  4. The organization has a good track record
  5. It's  a way to make a difference.


Martha's Table utilizes more than 10,000 volunteers annually to fill a prodigious need.  I was glad to be one of their many volunteers and I am sure my colleagues were as well. While Martha's Table has been successful in finding volunteers, other organizations may not be as fortunate. Volunteering through an organization by midlife and older adults has dropped from 28% in 2003 to 15% in 2012 ( AARP Civic Engagement Study, 2012). Volunteers are doing more on their own-"done in a day" type activities versus committing to a regular schedule. The good news is that those that volunteer through an organization are very committed, as 22% volunteer eleven or more hours per month and 17% volunteer 21 or more hours per month.

Overall, the top volunteer activities are (seen below in our volunteering fact sheet): "Collecting, preparing, serving food," "Fund-raising or selling items to raise money," "General labor/supply transportation," and, "Providing professional or managerial assistance." Who could have guessed that my Day of Service would be the tops on the list?

Importantly, almost two-thirds (62%) of midlife and older volunteers feel they have "moderate to high influence"  when joined by others in solving community problems. Patty Stonesifer, the CEO of Martha's Table, clearly understands this as her motto is: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."



Volunteering fact sheet


More Volunteering Research from AARP:

AARP 2012 Civic Engagement Study

AARP Member Opinion Survey Spotlight: Civic Engagement

AARP Bulletin Survey on Volunteering

More on Becky: Becky is the Senior Vice President of AARP Research, and is focused on fostering understanding of the interests and concerns of people age 50-plus and their families. Before coming to AARP, Becky served as the Vice President of Global Market Research & Guest Satisfaction for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. In her spare time, she likes visiting her niece in Ohio, gardening and collecting American art and antiques.

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