The volunteer industry is growing at an astounding rate. More students are choosing to spend gap years overseas. More adults are taking career breaks to volunteer. Honeymooning couples are choosing to spend their time giving back together, cementing their love by sharing their time and happiness. Empty nesters are finding new purpose and energy by sharing their experience, skills, and wisdom. It is a wonderful thing to see, especially in a world where economic crises seem to crop up everywhere you look, where poverty has reached record levels, and where the Internet joins us virtually, something that I think could keep people physically apart, if people let it. Instead, people are coming together across vast distances, bridging racial and socioeconomic divides, laughing in the face of ageism and sexism, and standing up to inequality and injustice.
It is difficult to quantify the exponential growth in volunteering that we sense all around us. There are so many different programs working in so many different places, it’s easy to lose track of what’s really happening. Go Overseas has come up with a clever solution, using Google to measure volunteer interest. Their results don’t tell us who is deciding to volunteer, but they do tell us who is looking for information, an interesting measure of the public’s curiosity about volunteering opportunities. I suspect, if we could compile data from a sampling of popular volunteer organizations, we may very well see a correlation between these searches and volunteer action. This data is critically important for understanding how to better serve volunteers, and for understanding what issues and causes speak most dearly to their hearts.
India was at the top of the Go Overseas list with 16,800 searches. India is home to over a billion people, which could account for the massive interest. According to Go Overseas and the UN Millennial Campaign to end poverty, infant mortality is one of the most pressing problems in the region. Surely this is a cause that we all find heartbreaking and of critical concern. Still, I don’t think we can pinpoint a single issue here. Surely potential volunteers are drawn to a region for a multitude of reasons, but it is certainly worth further investigation.
An interesting trend that Go Overseas points out is the prevalence of disaster relief volunteering opportunities among the top ten destinations (India, South Africa, Thailand, Haiti, Australia, United States, Japan, Costa Rica, Kenya, and Nepal). The earthquake in Haiti, earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. all drew a massive volunteer response from around the globe.
The more we can learn about what motivates and interests volunteers, the better we can be at cultivating that interest. Perhaps, in some cases, deeply important causes are being overlooked because of the industry’s focus on particular destinations or opportunities. In other cases, an increased focus on areas of interest may lead to more active participation. Whatever the implications, clearly the more information we have about trends, the better. Thanks, Go Overseas, for this fascinating glimpse into the volunteer universe.