How to Change the World in Five Hours or Less

Josh Schukman is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub. He’s the writing whiz for WonderWe—a crowdfunding social network that provides free viral tools for non-profits to fundraise, recruit and measure impact like a pro. When not crafting beautiful musings for WonderWe, Josh can be found cooking up the latest Paleo dish (his fiancee’s fault), cycling all over God’s creation, and/or endeavoring to understand the mysterious ways of the universe.

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Over the years, I’ve been very involved with volunteerism. I devoted a year of my life to AmeriCorps, worked for 3 years at my college’s community service office, helped indigenous farmers in Peru and was involved with Habitat for Humanity and refugee resettlement for a number of years.

But then in 2012, I reached a deep personal crossroads. I was reflecting on my long resume of community service and a lingering question haunted me: had my service actually transformed lives? The answer was no. I hated to admit it, but I couldn’t land on one moment where I had truly shifted the course of someone else’s life. Had I learned a great deal about myself? Yes. Learned a great deal about injustice? Yes. But transforming a life? No.

This was a tough realization for me. Service should be transformative for both the servant and the served, but I was missing the mark. My response was to completely reassess what serving others truly means. I concluded that transformative service is not about the number of causes we give to, the number of dollars we donate, or the amount of time we can brag about volunteering. Rather, it is about dedicating ourselves to just one cause. By dedicating myself to one cause, I’m able to serve families more deeply, understand my cause more fully and enjoy a much richer experience at the nonprofit I volunteer with.

I cannot deny that my experiences volunteering at many places were important for me. In fact, it’s really the only way I was able to zero in on my central cause. In the long run, however, we nonprofit professionals need to be focused on bringing in recurring volunteers because this is the only way to truly transform our communities.

If everyone gave 5-7 hours per month to just one cause, we would change the world.

I’ll give you an example: When I realized in 2012 that my service was having minimal impact, I decided that I was going to focus 7 hours serving each month with just one organization, Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). JVS helps incoming refugees acclimate to life in the U.S. The reality is, the number of families coming far exceeds the capacity of JVS support staff, so they need volunteers to help families navigate tasks such as renting an apartment, grocery shopping, and making appointments. For refugees thrust into a strange country because of circumstances beyond their control, even the small things become daunting. I knew I could help, so I work with the same family each week. I teach them English, help them navigate appointments, and generally make sure they aren’t lost in a system they don’t understand. I believe their lives will be transformed because I’m consistently involved.

By serving one cause, I build a relationship of trust and deep friendship with one family.

Because I only focus on them, we can really get into our English lessons or a cultural outing. My volunteering is focused, it’s deliberate, and I will be a part of their lives for the foreseeable future. I know in my heart I’ll make a far deeper, far more meaningful impact in their lives than the micro-impacts I was making while volunteering here there and everywhere.

What if we all did this? What if everyone had one cause they devoted 7 hours (and heck, while I’m at it, 5% of their resources) to each week? We could change our country! Every kid struggling to read could have a reading partner every week who could be depended on. No refugee family would have to arrive to the U.S. only to be defeated by systems they simply do not understand. Most importantly, this would do more to bridge the gap between races, between the rich and the poor, between refugee and resident than just about anything else out there.

5 hours. 1 cause that has meaning for you. Enough to change the world.

How can you implement this at your nonprofit?

​I won’t lie, it can be a real challenge to get people to commit to long term volunteering like this, but the good news is, once you get them started on it, they’ll be hooked. The key is in getting them through those first 2-3 months. For example, I currently serve as a Big Brother. I’ve had my little for a few months and the first 2 months were challenging for me. I struggled with communication, planning our activities, and how I was really making an impact. Thankfully, I had a great case worker who had told me before my service began that this would happen, that it was normal, and that it would pass. With his guidance, I was able to move through those first few months into a beautiful service connection. Thus, as you start recruiting volunteers for sustained service, be sure that you are up front about the challenges they may experience at first. It is also critical that you have a clearly defined role for them. For example, Big Brothers has a very specific monthly time commitment, they gave me a title (I’m a ‘Big’), and they offer activity suggestions. By doing this, you will help your volunteer understand their responsibilities and stay involved for enough time to allow them to experience the joy and impact through serving one cause.

  • Thank you for embracing the “long term” aspect of volunteering. Most non-profits rely heavily on dedicated volunteers who commit to deep involvement.
    Volunteers however, need to be careful with motivation. In the article you say, “Service should be transformative for both the servant and the served”. In my experience as a volunteer manager, I’ve seen excellent volunteers quit because they do not see a major transformation in the people they are helping. Motivations become more about the need to “make a difference” rather than walking alongside a person and being what that person needs, which is not always to be changed. Volunteers can perceive their service as a failure, because the served did not quit smoking, or did not see the world as the volunteer sees it.
    The subtleties of volunteer motivation can often dictate how the person being helped views the help. But you are right, humbly helping another person will be trans-formative if it is not expected. Thanks!

  • Barry Altland

    Meridian, hello from this vantage point, as well! Our paths keep crossing! You may be interested to hear the upcoming, recently recorded podcast that Josh and I have put together. In that message, we share that at times those who choose to serve do not get to witness the impact they desire to see. Yet, that does not mean that impact did not occur.
    As leaders, we must help our volunteers who we have discovered are driven intrinsically by the need to make a visible, noticeable difference to see that change within in the social impact space happens in many unique ways. We must help them learn to embrace the subtleties of growth that others may experience through our service efforts. It’s not always the big splash. At times, it’s the slightest ripple.
    You know about the Starfish Parable and the Butterfly Effect. Although they may be trite, there is a reason why these clichéd stories exist. There is truth to them. Small waves can turn into tidal magnitude.
    Blessings, my friends!

  • Hi Barry, you put this nuanced idea into words far better than I did so thank you! It’s powerful to watch volunteers who humbly help become choked up when reaping the rewards of helping-they didn’t go seeking those rewards, but accept them gratefully. Where can we access the podcast, it sounds awesome!

  • Joshua Schukman

    Hi Meridian! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! The podcast can be found here & we’d love to have you as a listener! https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fresh-perspectives-on-social/id916316831?mt=2