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An Untapped Resource: The Power of Volunteerism

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Today, as countries around the world face turbulent economic times, the challenges seem too big for governments to address on their own. The good news is that globally, citizens are engaged in addressing social issues at greater levels than ever before. At the same time, governments are launching civic engagement campaigns, corporations are championing employee-led initiatives and corporate social responsibility (CSR), and innovative NGOs are harnessing the talents of volunteers in new and powerful ways. On the road to economic recovery, these combined efforts at stimulating volunteerism have a great deal to offer.

While service is not a panacea, it can help address some of the social challenges threatening communities: economic inequality, educational access, and health issues. Moreover, volunteerism offers many tangible benefits. It serves to knit together sectors of society which don't always work closely together. Individuals, particularly youth, can gain valuable experience and exposure to networks for future paid employment. Volunteers also develop a life-long ethic of civic engagement. In addition, governments benefit by promoting more vibrant democratic engagement.

Many companies already understand the value of expanding their CSR programs: these programs enhance their standing, establish links, and provide brand recognition in the communities and populations that are served. Moreover, CSR programs enrich employees with better quality of life and new skill sets.

Volunteers represent an enormous global presence. Conservative estimates produced by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies show that approximately 971 million people volunteer in a typical year across the globe either through organizations or directly to persons outside their household. Not only is the volunteer workforce numerous, but also it represents an enormous economic force. The estimated monetary value of these volunteers' time, as of 2005, is $1.348 trillion. These figures illustrate that although not formally measured, volunteerism contributes significantly to national productivity.

To more effectively leverage this under tapped resource, the Meridian International Center in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Spain and the Rafael del Pino Foundation in Madrid are bringing together global service leaders from the private, public and non-profit sectors. In a summit this week in Madrid, these service leaders will share their best thinking and connect with one another to magnify the impact of service in countries around the world.

Spain was selected as the host country for this summit, due in part to the fact that its economic challenges-- high unemployment and cuts in government spending-- are shared by so many other countries, including the U.S. However, it is also a country with an already vibrant volunteer culture. The Summit looks to both learn from and enhance that sector and apply the lessons learned to other societies, including the U.S.

The Summit is attracting participation at the highest levels of the Spanish and U.S. governments. HRH Prince Felipe of Austurias, the Spanish crown prince; the Spanish Minister of Health, Ana Mato, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ann Stock are among those sharing their expertise. Through their involvement and the participation of internationally recognized CSR leaders like IBM and Alcoa, Harvard business guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Alan Khazei, Founder of City Year and Be the Change, we will mark a critical step to link countries' best practices on this subject. At the same time, we will generate increased collaboration across the public, private and non-profit sectors. We are certain this Summit will result in new ways to harness volunteering to address some of our shared economic challenges. Participants will stay connected via a dynamic social networking platform that will enable them to continue to exchange ideas and improve the impact of service at home.

There is no doubt that we live in difficult times. The shared challenges are many and complex, but they are not insurmountable. As our nations move toward economic recovery, we must employ a variety of solutions--and one area of great potential is service. Through service we can begin addressing social needs that are too big for governments alone to cope with, we can link different sectors of society in constructive ways, increase overall national productivity and stimulate a culture of service and civic engagement for generations to come.