Is empathy volunteering’s greatest gift?

Volunteering is often lauded, and rightly so, for the many benefits it brings to both the volunteer and the beneficiaries of their time. Creating change, making new friends, gaining new skills and much more. What’s not to like?

All of the above is true but I want to explore an area that gets less attention; how volunteering can foster empathy, its role in creating social capital and how we all benefit from that.

What is empathy?

As I wrote in a blog about power dynamics in volunteering feeling sympathy for someone isn’t difficult. Turning on the news, listening to a Band Aid single or seeing a charity fundraising appeal automatically makes us feel bad for those that are suffering. Feeling sympathetic for someone else isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it can lead to pity and therefore not fully relating to the images that you’re seeing. “That would never happen to me or my family” or “that’s sad but the answer looks obvious” are common thoughts. When we do this we continue to see those people as ‘the other’. There is an emotional distance despite how close you might physically be to that person.

Being empathetic is different, it moves us to think and feel about what it would be like to walk in those people’s shoes. Our understanding of the issue is better and it becomes a shared human experience rather than one that consists of ‘us and them’. It might sound easy but it’s a skill that must be learned and practiced.

What is social capital?

This OECD paper sums it up well, “We can think of social capital as the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together.” In essence it’s the binds that bring us together and makes a society work, wherever we live in the world. How these are built vary greatly; it might be meeting people at the pub or playing sport or going to church. But the outcome is the same: societies with higher levels of social capital have greater trust in each other and the institutions that govern them and in turn are more likely to live happier, safer and more fulfilled lives.

Financial resources, when correctly invested, can help develop the correct tools to build social capital, but at its core its about people feeling genuine connections to others.

Where does volunteering come in?

Volunteering is classic example of bringing people together and as John Davies from NCVO recently wrote it could well be one of the answers to loneliness in young people. Building on this I think there is a strong case that volunteering is the perfect way to practice those empathy skills that I spoke about and in turn build social capital.

In the 2017 LSE Volunteer Centre survey we found that 74.5% of students who volunteered believed that their understanding of other people increased. This was the largest emotional change felt by the students out of all the statements they were given about how volunteering had affected them. Think about that statistic for a moment, three-quarters of some of the most intelligent and well educated young people on the planet felt they had a better understanding of other people through their volunteering. I think that’s nothing short of incredible.

In a much deeper and more specific study Melissa Milanovic found that volunteering and being in a relationship were the two biggest drivers of empathy levels in society with those engaging in volunteering much more likely to be able to relate to how others were feeling and respond appropriately.

So how does volunteering create this change?

In my opinion in three ways:

1. It brings the volunteer closer to the issue they are involved with. Remember when I spoke about feeling sympathetic to a cause and how the answers can often appear easy when viewed from a distance? Volunteering puts people in the front row of the issue and they get to see all of its problems and the nuances surrounding how to solve them.

2. It challenges assumptions. We all have prejudices within us and volunteering can shake those out. My easiest example is volunteering in Ghana. My views on the problems that West Africans were facing were built on a diet of Oxfam adverts and Band Aid songs and they couldn’t have been further from the truth. Putting these assumptions aside made me a much better volunteer and provoked me in to thinking that perhaps I wasn’t right about other issues I’d previously been sure on.

3. New social groups. Volunteering will almost certainly introduce volunteers to those outside of their friendship circles, people who will have led completely different lives and view issues through potentially unfamiliar prisms. Listening and learning in this environment helps people understand how to look at things from a new angle and appreciate contrasting points of view.

So why is this volunteering’s greatest gift?

In any relationship trust is the most important part; this is true at societal level as well as within one-to-one relationships. Since the financial crash we’ve seen trust within society drop to some of the lowest levels since records began. A lack of trust leads to fear and, understandably, this is often aimed at things in society that we don’t fully understand. It makes it harder for all of us to converse in a civilised manner when we lack the skills to even appreciate why someone is thinking the opposite to us, be it on Brexit, abortion, Trump or any issue. This acts as a further cause of distrust and the breakdown of social capital. If we can’t appreciate why someone is taking a certain position on a topic how can we expect to fully engage with the biggest issues we face as a society.

It isn’t just how we interact when we debate with each other but it affects the health of our economy too with studies showing that countries with higher levels of social capital are more able to mitigate financial shocks in the first place. Although I said social capital can’t be bought, youth clubs, sports programmes and volunteer initiatives do need financial investment and a robust economy provides the resources to do this.

I appreciate that volunteering isn’t a silver bullet to the problems I list above but bringing people together to create, and have ownership of, change in society is one of the most powerful tools we have in building that social capital that’s so important in any community. A richer, more caring and happier society sounds pretty good to me and that’s why I think there is a strong case to be made for empathy being volunteering’s greatest gift.

But what do you think?

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