Bringing Meaning to Volunteerism

As Michael mentioned earlier this week, several of us at Volunteer Maryland had the opportunity to attend LEAD- a Get HandsOn Summit in DC. It was set up largely as collection of panels, which was great because there was time for questions from the audience during and after each session. One thing many of us seem to struggle with in terms of volunteers is how to make sure that we’re providing a meaningful experience and not just focusing on the number of hours served. At several points throughout the day I also heard conversations about how to get volunteers of all sorts away from episodic volunteering and into more long-term in-depth projects. We all need volunteers at our one-time events to help out, but how do we take the person who came out on a Saturday morning to plant a tree and show them how much more of an impact they could be making?

This inevitably raises questions about service requirements for schools, clubs, etc. We certainly want everyone possible from every age group out there making a difference, but is the experience worthwhile when the goal of participating is to get a piece of paper signed? One person even mentioned that this could be putting volunteering in a negative light as something that is mandatory, leading kids not to find their passions and potentially causing them to give back to their communities less over a lifetime. As with most big questions, I don’t think there’s one easy or right answer but it’s certainly worth reflecting upon.

One method is to engage students and youth in service learning. Service learning is a teaching strategy which integrates meaningful community service with academic study and reflective practice. According to Learn and Serve America, which is the service learning arm of the Corporation for National and Community Service, “If school students collect trash out of an urban streambed, they are providing a service to the community as volunteers; a service that is highly valued and important. On the other hand, when school students collect trash from an urban streambed, then analyze what they found and possible sources so they can share the results with residents of the neighborhood along with suggestions for reducing pollution, they are engaging in service-learning.”. This has a dual effect of having a larger impact on the community and providing students real-world experience with using science and critical thinking skills. I truly believe that, when used effectively, service learning helps eliminate the age-old and infinitely frustrating question of “how will I ever use this?”.

Maryland is the first state in the nation to require high school students to engage in service-learning activities in order to graduate, and their seven best practices are:

  • Meet a recognized need in the community
  • Achieve curricular objectives through service-learning
  • Reflect throughout the service-learning experience
  • Develop student responsibility
  • Establish community partnerships
  • Plan ahead for service-learning
  • Equip students for knowledge and skills needed for service

I am super excited about the possibilities that can come about when you allow youth to create their own response to a need which they’ve found in the community. I also think that these practices translate well into adult volunteers. We all want to know we’re making a tangible difference and learn something in the process too, right?

For more information, best practices, and sample projects check out and


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