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Volunteerism

  • Date: 08/21/2004
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.)
  • The first steps to a successful career require a need to balance time, to set priorities and to commit. This balancing act offers many opportunities for success, wherein probably one of the most promising and rewarding sources of opportunity derives from our sense of, and participation in, our community.

    The late Danny Thomas who, together with a group of businessmen, founded St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, believed that "Success ... has nothing to do with what (we) gain in life or accomplish for (ourselves). It is (based on) what (we) do for others."
    (Van Ekeren, Glenn, Speaker's Sourcebook II, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994, p.350)

    In a few moments, we will honor just such a person, Mrs. Patricia Graves, the retiring chair of our University's Board of Trustees, whose selfless dedication has made her an admired and respected community leader. In addition to her nine years of service on the University's Board of Trustees, Mrs. Graves has dedicated her life to serving others as a community volunteer.

    Her list of community service is impressive, capped off by 40 years as a member and former president of the Women's Board of Akron Children's Hospital. In fact, adding up all of her years of service to many organizations, Patti Graves has logged more than a century of volunteerism. WOW!

    Volunteerism is one of those activities that no one seems to have time for, but the successful, like Patty, simply make room for. Since the days when pioneer men and women would gather for barn raisings and quilting bees, volunteerism is historically a notable slice of Americana.

    Indeed, as historian Merle Curti has put it: "Emphasis on voluntary initiative has helped give America (much of its) national character."
    (Cited in O'Connell, Brian, "America's Voluntary Spirit," U.S. Society of Values, September 1998, p.9)

    Approximately half of all Americans, 13-years or older, volunteer, and they devote an average of four hours per week to their cause.
    (Brian O'Connell, professor of citizenship and public service at Tufts University)

    "Three out of four U.S. citizens are regular contributors of money to charitable causes, and give more than $1,000 per family each year."
    (O'Connell, Ibid)

    Organizations such as our own Akron Community Foundation and United Way of Summit County work to distribute this money to worthwhile organizations.

    And, according to the National Points of Light Foundation, the percentage of adult volunteers in the Greater Akron area is, admirably, one of the highest in the nation.
    (National Points of Light Foundation, as provided by Summit County United Way)

    You may already know that a strong source of community engagement comes from our universities, since many of you have been active volunteers through your honor society, fraternity or sorority, or through many other student organizations.

    The University of Akron is a member of the Campus Compact, a national coalition of 900 college and university presidents, which encourages community involvement and the need "to make civic learning a part of academic life."
    (Campus Compact News Release, Providence RI, May 3, 2004)

    According to its 2003 survey, "...an average of 36 percent of students (across its member campuses) participate in service activities, and that is "a record high level of engagement."
    (Campus Compact, Ibid)

    But why do we, as a society, feel the need to help others, including those we have never met?

    Most of us would agree that we do not volunteer for the money - there is none. We are not in it for the recognition, because it is modest at best.

    And so, I could not help but notice an August 12 article in The Economist, entitled "The Evolution of Everyday Life," a review of a forthcoming book by Paul Seabright that explores how "co-operation has brought the human race a long way in a staggeringly short time...from suspicious and untrusting creatures" to a network of cooperation that relies "on trust among strangers."
    (The Evolution of Everyday Life, The Economist, August 12, 2004; "The Company of Strangers," by Paul Seabright a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse.)

    And to get there..."Two traits were needed, says (author) Seabright, (so as) to bring the fruits of co-operation within reach, and evolution had equipped humans with both - accidentally, as it were. The first was an intellectual capacity for rational calculation. The second, somewhat at odds with the first, was an instinct for reciprocity - a tendency to repay kindness with kindness and betrayal with revenge, even when rational calculation might seem to advise against (either)."
    (The Economist, Ibid)

    Whatever the reasoning, there is a personal payback - a sense of ownership and commitment. For some, it is a means of giving back what they have received; for others, it simply is a feel-good experience. For a few, however, it can be a life-altering encounter that actually helps each of them identify their singular purpose in life. Whatever the reason, having a positive impact on the life of another can be an awesome experience.

    And while volunteerism is an American way of life, it also quickly has become a way of doing business, even as corporations increasingly find new ways to compete in today's ever-changing environment. In fact, according to author and corporate consultant Betty B. Stallings, volunteerism has become a corporate necessity.

    She writes that "Volunteer programs can propel the strategic goals of the company forward, and thus are seen as integral, not peripheral elements. These projects can and do build public credibility for the corporation and increase name recognition."
    (Stallings, Betty B., "Volunteerism and Corporate America," U.S. Society & Values, USIA Electronic Journal The United States: A Nation of Volunteers, Volume 3, Number 2, September 1998)

    "Furthermore," she states, "they are beneficial in attracting new talent to the firm, motivating staff members, and enhancing professional development for both junior and senior managers."
    (Stallings, Ibid)

    And, according to a report by the Conference Board, one of the world's leading business research organizations, corporate support starts at the top.

    "Ninety-two percent of...executives surveyed encouraged their staffers to become involved in community service...(and) more than half...acknowledged the linkage between...volunteer programs and profitability, and even more agreed that employee service built morale, teamwork and productivity."
    (Stallings, Ibid)

    Indeed, communities exist for the welfare of all. Each of us has a unique opportunity - better yet, a responsibility - to leave the world a better place...a responsibility to continuously build capacity for better and better communities.

    In closing, my message to you is simple: Get involved. Help ensure that future generations have the opportunity to experience what you have enjoyed. Whether it is the arts, health care, the environment, the political process or your alma mater, they need your leadership...they need your organizational skills...they need you.

    Make good use of your education. Make a difference, just as Patty Graves has done and surely will continue to do.

    Former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill said it best: "We make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give."
    (Volunteer Recognition, North Carolina State University Website)

    Be sure to give of yourself.

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