Changemaking and a New Era for Volunteer Engagement: An Interview With Amy Smith of Points of Light

04/13/2016 05:24 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2017

I had the pleasure of checking in with Amy Smith, Chief Strategy Officer and President, Action Networks at Points of Light during National Volunteer Week to learn about her latest reflections on the field of volunteering.

Amy and I first met when I volunteered to co-chair the business track for the 2009 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. Since then, we've worked together on several volunteering initiatives, and I've come to value her wisdom, pragmatism, and hope for the future.

It's been seven years since the passage of the Serve America Act. What do you see as its impact on volunteering and service?

The Serve America Act has helped people appreciate the importance of volunteering and provided a major financial boost to service efforts across the U.S., particularly AmeriCorps. Young people join AmeriCorps to participate in an intensive service assignment for 10-12 months. It's an incredible experience for the member and a powerful tool for improving communities. Since AmeriCorps was founded 22 years ago, 900,000 members have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours in service. Together, they have helped 15,000 organizations mobilize 4 million volunteers to help communities address issues with poverty, education, health care, disaster recovery and environmental cleanup.

It's especially gratifying to see how programs like AmeriCorps benefit participants as well as recipients. A study showed that AmeriCorps members have a greater sense of having served their country and earn college degrees at a higher rate. I encourage more young adults to consider adding AmeriCorps to their career and education aspirations. The AmeriCorps experience is truly life-changing for members and communities.

What are some of the current challenges that the volunteer sector is facing?

We are looking at a new era of volunteer engagement and need to be ready to respond quickly to the evolving needs of volunteers, nonprofits, and communities. Take for example, the employee who wants the flexibility of volunteering during lunch without leaving the office, or the student who wants to give 30 minutes from his computer between classes, or a professional association that wants to use their skills to help build the capacity of nonprofit organizations. The challenge is to continue to find ways to best adapt to these changes.

Studies have shown a recent decline in service hours, especially among younger people. However, I'm not sure our metrics and measurement tools are keeping up with all the ways people engage today and advocate for the issues they care about most, from social media and crowdsourcing to virtual volunteering. We need to continually re-examine the definition of service, innovate "the what" and "the how" of engagement, and find the most relevant and meaningful ways to inspire action. Volunteer service is evolving and that is a good thing. We need to nurture new approaches and forms of engagement so they flourish.

What are you excited about now in the volunteering space?

In a word, changemaking. My organization Points of Light just completed a new strategic plan, so we have been thinking a lot about this question. Points of Light inspires, equips, and mobilizes people to take action that can change the world.

Changemaking goes beyond traditional volunteering to a broader definition of community engagement. We are committed to the idea that people have the power -- and more importantly, the ambition -- to leverage their time, talent, money, and voice to make their neighborhoods healthier and more vibrant.

In these uncertain times, greater engagement in our communities is more important to a meaningful life than ever. We're focused on providing more people with more and better ways to get out there and do something great. We know that service helps kids develop the empathy and social skills needed to be successful in life. At generationon.org, kids can find many ways to get involved in supporting their communities. We're helping social entrepreneurs develop new solutions to social problems through our Civic Accelerator and collaborating with business to create lasting change at scale. We're also providing quick access to local volunteer action centers in more than 250 cities across the globe where anyone can find a place to serve.

There is truly something for everyone, and that is very exciting and powerful. If everyone answered the call to become a changemaker, I believe it would absolutely transform our planet.

It's National Volunteer Week, but how can individuals and organizations take action to make a difference in their communities year round?

There are so many options! It can be a little overwhelming for nonprofits and volunteers to connect. I recommend making allforgood.org your first stop. It's an easy-to-use, searchable database of over 200,000 projects that's updated daily and covers just about every issue area you can imagine. It's a great way to get started.

Companies' volunteer programs can help employees commit to making a difference in their communities. Studies have found that employee volunteering results in a cost savings of $2,400 per person annually due to lower turnover and more engagement. Points of Light's Corporate Institute provides valuable resources to help companies build employee engagement programs. For example, we've partnered with Bank of America and the Corporation for National and Community Service to create the Financial Opportunity Corps, which has brought financial coaching and education to low-income individuals and community members across the country.

So you can see how many different ways there are to be a changemaker. Lining up your passion and skills with true community needs is the fun part!

As you think about the future of volunteering around the world, what is your hope?

Great question. Here is what I know for sure: we're not making enough progress on the world's most pressing challenges, and there's a great, untapped potential to accelerate progress by getting more people involved in volunteering. I hope more people will take the first step in changing the life of someone else and feel the value of that effort in their own lives. I encourage everyone to connect with the issue they are most passionate about and get out there!

I've been doing this work for almost 10 years now and my hope for the world remains the same - that one day everyone will discover and act upon their power to become a community changemaker. And through that discovery, I hope we will together create a world that is safer, healthier, happier, more inclusive, more tolerant, more productive, more innovative, and more sustainable.

Points of Light is the largest organization in the world dedicated to volunteer service. Learn more through their website and follow @PointsofLight.