Seth Franz can vividly recall his first foray into the world of volunteerism. He was a pre-teen at the time and helped distribute food to the homeless in a Salvation Army van. That experience made a positive impression and provided him a lifetime vantage point for service and contribution.
As a young professional, Franz attended the typical networking events. Everyone showed up in office attire and passed out business cards. Franz liked the initial interaction among peers who wanted to climb the leadership ladder. But he also wanted more—deeper connections, opportunities to bond and give back to the community.
Returning to his volunteerism roots, Franz envisioned something more informal, more fun. In February 2014, he founded Volunteering Untapped (VU) to create the experience he was looking for. What began as a movement of 10 has grown to more than 100 participants showing up to contribute to their community.
“This program was created to give young professionals the opportunity for inspiring, rewarding, and impactful experiences that will help forge a passion for future volunteering—both with our organization and on their own,” says Franz, who by day is co-founder and director of operations for Hone Health, an online telemedicine clinic. “Volunteering Untapped was born out of the realization that young professionals in Baltimore want to give back to their community, but simply don’t know the best way to get involved. We solve that problem.”
Here’s how it works. On the second Saturday of each month, volunteers assemble to help out a different nonprofit in Baltimore. That way, says Franz, participants can better understand Baltimore’s nonprofit landscape and the problems the city faces. Ideally, they will use the experience to launch themselves into deeper engagement with the city. VU has grown to be a reliable resource for Baltimore and its nonprofits with beneficiaries including Kennedy Krieger Institute, the Baltimore Tree Trust, and the Franciscan Center. After the volunteers spend part of the day working, they head out to a neighborhood bar or restaurant for an after-party.
“Seth is a special person who has poured his heart and soul into VU,” says longtime volunteer Taylor Smith. “And it really shows in the program.”
In just shy of 10 years, VU has built a community of more than 6,000 volunteers of all ages in Baltimore who have performed more than 35,000 hours of community service. The organization also has expanded its reach with new chapters opening in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas.
“Through our events, Volunteering Untapped has engaged thousands of people in Baltimore to do everything from building homes to planting trees to feeding the homeless,” says Franz. “For many of these people, we are the first volunteer experience they’ve had in a long time or ever. We accomplish many things through our events, and the most important is serving as a springboard that launches our volunteers into a long life of civic engagement. Our events are a pebble dropped into the pond of each volunteer and we take pride in watching the ripples.”
And while the benefits to the nonprofits they serve are obvious, it does lead to an intriguing question—who benefits more, the charitable organization or the volunteers themselves?
Research is showing that it’s overwhelmingly both.
According to Psychology Today, participants often feel a greater sense of community, contribution, camaraderie, and a sense of purpose through volunteering. Volunteers are happier and healthier than non-volunteers. In fact, later in life, volunteering is even more beneficial for one’s health than exercising and eating well. Older people who volunteer remain physically functional longer, have more robust psychological well-being, and live longer. However, older people who volunteer are almost always people who volunteered earlier in life. Health and longevity gains from volunteering come from establishing meaningful volunteer roles before you retire and continuing to volunteer once you arrive in your post-retirement years.
The very nature of volunteering means choosing to work without being paid for it. As a result, volunteers are most successful when they spend their time on issues they feel strongly about. If you are greatly concerned about the treatment and well-being of animals, for example, volunteering at an animal shelter will help you address a social problem that is meaningful to you.
“If you aren’t currently volunteering—three out of four of us aren’t—there are many online resources to help you find an opportunity,” says Dawn Carr, MGS, PhD, who studies factors that bolster older adults’ ability to remain healthy and active as long as possible. “Committing even as little as one hour a week can have a profound benefit on your own life, and the organizations that rely on such help will be able to thrive….You’ll get more back than you ever imagined.”
Franz has seen firsthand the benefits of volunteering and the bonds it can create. He says he’s had volunteers who have met and married or found new jobs as a result of their service. Other volunteers also attest to the personal benefit and value of giving back.
Mental health advocate Melony Hill benefited from the resources provided from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and offered to be a volunteer. She has since been trained to present on behalf of the organization, sharing her story at schools and the like throughout the region and advocating for mental health awareness on Capitol Hill.
“I had such an amazing experience with NAMI that I said, ‘I have to get more involved,’” says Hill. “It’s a place where I can be of value to the organization and to my people [who struggle with mental health].”
Hill has since started her own company called Stronger Than My Struggles and published nine books to share her story and help end the stigma attached to mental illness.
“I have witnessed firsthand individuals approaching our volunteers and telling them that by sharing their story they saved that individual’s life,” says Kerry Graves, executive director of NAMI Metropolitan Baltimore. That sort of feedback is pretty common, she adds. Graves says that, from what she’s heard, NAMI volunteers are directly responsible for more students in schools seeking counseling services, more police officers meeting community members in crisis with empathy rather than handcuffs, more patients in inpatient settings feeling hopeful about the road ahead, and more family members learning how to support their struggling loved ones.
“Our volunteers are changing lives, changing communities,” says Graves. “And that is priceless.”
Gilda Gordon, a retiree, is another volunteer who agrees she’s not sure who benefits the most—the organizations she serves or herself. Gordon volunteers at Weekend Backpacks, a group that bags food to be delivered to schools for children in need. But it’s her work at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital (MWPH) that truly fulfills her. She and a friend volunteer twice a week at MWPH where they are “cuddlers” who spend time with ill and distressed infants. Touch is therapeautic for us all, no matter our age. This service helps when parents aren’t always physically available to constantly be with their newborn at such a vulnerable time.
“It’s such a wonderful experience,” Gordon says. “I think we enjoy it more than [the infants] do. When you pick them up and they look at you, you know you’re giving them the life they need. I’d love to take all those babies home, but my husband says no,” she says with a laugh.
It’s no surprise that Gordon and others get a lift out of their volunteer experience. WebMD states that for the 26 percent of adults in the United States who volunteer, one of the biggest benefits is that the more you do it, the happier you become. In fact, studies show that people who start with lower levels of well-being may get an even bigger boost in happiness from volunteering.
Franz sees this joy play out routinely at VU and invites any and all to sign up to volunteer through his organization.
“We love Baltimore,” Franz says, “and we exist to help create a better Baltimore. We think that the best way to accomplish that is to build the best volunteer experience possible. When the volunteers are taken care of, they take care of the nonprofits we serve. When [they’re] inspired by the impact they are having, they want to come back to volunteer with us or with our partner nonprofits, and they are more deeply connected to Baltimore.”