"In the early 19th century, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville said, "America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."
How true that statement is even today. Although America is "good" in many ways, de Tocqueville was particularly intrigued with the uniquely American trait of helping and serving others within communities -- he wrote of neighbors helping neighbors with no expectation of reciprocal assistance. He found that Americans were prone to step up and offer help and support, to form "associations" of voluntary benefit and to take part in civic life at rates and numbers not seen in other countries.
Today, volunteering continues to be a defining American attribute. According to Volunteering in America, published by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Utah continues to lead the nation in volunteer rates. Nearly 45 percent of Utahns volunteer regularly, giving more than 177 million hours of service annually.
And Utah County continues to lead the state. More than six out of 10 Utah County residents volunteer annually --the highest rate of any community in the nation. With more than 197,000 volunteers giving 49 million hours of service annually, it's easy to see how our community has such a strong reputation for service.
But will these trends continue, despite the poor economy? My more than 30 years of experience in the nonprofit sector in Utah County tells me that yes, Utah County will continue to volunteer and to give of their means to help others in need. And in these difficult economic times, I offer the following advice to assure your time and financial resources are making as big a difference as possible.
• Long-term impact -- When selecting a volunteering opportunity, consider the long-term impact your service may or may not have. Are you truly making a difference in the root cause of the issue? Or is your volunteering simply treating the symptoms of a larger problem? Although volunteers are needed to help with the symptoms -- say, to serve hot meals to the homeless -- you can make a larger and more lasting impact if you volunteer to help individuals become more self-reliant in some way.
• Volunteering to feel good -- Some volunteer activities actually do more to help the volunteer feel better about himself or herself than they do to help an individual in need. Consider participating in activities that will benefit the receiver more than you as the giver.
• Helping vs. volunteering -- We often forget that simply helping a neighbor or other individual in need can be just as critical as formal volunteering in a nonprofit organization. For example, United Way of Utah County just launched a multi-year effort called EveryDay Learners that encourages residents of all ages to become active learners and to help children become active learners as well. You can become an EveryDay Learner by helping your young children develop or practice basic math skills, learn to read or discover something new in the fields of science, art or music. Organizing a neighborhood group of children to spend an afternoon at a museum during spring break, forming a homework help club in your neighborhood or simply asking your next-door high school student how school is going are all ways you can help others without formally volunteering.
On the other hand, scores of worthy organizations can help you and your family become EveryDay Learners through formal volunteer opportunities. You can call our Volunteer Center by dialing 2-1-1 or (801) 374-2588 or go to www.UnitedWayUC.org to search hundreds of volunteer opportunities.
In addition to volunteering, Utah County residents make a difference through contributing to worthy causes. When considering organizations to which you may donate, keep in mind the following.
• Impact of the organization -- Is the organization truly making an impact in people's lives? Is it helping individuals and families become more self-reliant while maintaining their dignity and preserving their sense of self-worth?
• Use of your donation -- Will your money be used in the most effective way possible? Will your contribution be leveraged to make a greater impact than you could make on your own?
• Reputation of the organization -- Ask your friends, neighbors and colleagues if they have heard of the organization and what they know about it. Check www.guidestar.org to read the organization's IRS tax forms. Look at the organization's website and read about its board of directors, its goals and its successes.
By maintaining our strong support of each other and of nonprofit organizations through smart volunteering and smart donating, Utah County residents will continue to set the pace for the rest of the nation."