As we marked Martin Luther King Day on January 15, I found myself reflecting on the enduring spirit of service that defines his legacy.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left behind a profound dedication to serving others. As we pay tribute to his life and work this month, it’s crucial that we rekindle our commitment to advancing his dream of equality and justice.
We must start by asking ourselves the very question he posed: “What are you doing for others?”
A life of purpose involves serving the greater good. Dr. King’s words resonate deeply: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
In the charitable sector, we have the power to propel Dr. King’s dream forward by inspiring others to engage in service and volunteering – not just this month but throughout the entire year.
Service holds a special place in my heart. Each Thanksgiving, I see it in action as my three children volunteer at local food pantries. On most MLK days, we make it a family tradition to engage in service activities. This tradition has instilled in our family a strong sense of giving, appreciation, and gratitude.
But what does the state of service and volunteerism look like in America today?
Nonprofit research, including Independent Sector’s recent report on the health of the U.S. nonprofit sector, reveals troubling declines in donor and volunteer participation. According to our findings, a staggering 59% of individuals did not volunteer in 2022. Declining volunteer rates come at a time when nonprofits need more help than ever and are struggling to keep up with the increased demand for services.
Volunteers help hold up the foundation of civil society and grow the nonprofit sector. They help their neighbors, serve their communities, and provide their expertise. No matter the kind of volunteer work they do, they contribute in valuable ways.
Volunteering is a critical form of engagement with nonprofits that strengthens the nonprofit workforce and drives trust in the sector. In fact, our most recent Value of Volunteer Time report estimates the national value of a single volunteer hour at $31.80.
Volunteering not only strengthens the charitable sector, but it also benefits volunteers themselves.
Last year, the Surgeon General raised the alarm about an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the United States. Volunteerism serves as a critical antidote to isolation, bolstering our social infrastructure and fostering a culture of connection. Volunteering can provide us with a mental reset because it is rooted in abundance, not scarcity — each one of us has so much we can give and share.
Does giving back make me feel better and lift me out of emotional lows? Absolutely!
Volunteering is one of the most affordable, beautiful, and authentic ways to experience our shared humanity. Acts of service are a gift back to ourselves. People can volunteer at any stage of their lives: all that’s required is an open heart and a sense of connection to a community or cause. Independent Sector members VolunteerMatch and Points of Light are two great resources where you can find volunteer opportunities and locate nonprofits in your local community.
Dr. King’s legacy lives on through our actions. In 2024, let’s commit to a year filled with service to advance the greater good. Together, we can build a healthier, more just future for us all.
Dr. Akilah Watkins is president and CEO of Independent Sector.