The Gift

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Many people think of Christmas as the season for giving, but the truth is, giving spans all seasons. American volunteers have an enormous impact on the health and well-being of communities worldwide, be they agricultural, faith, or your own hometown or neighborhood — to the tune of 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service that added $175 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012.

Still, farmers and ranchers, particularly those in the beef business, stand out when it comes to giving to others: While one in four Americans volunteers time to causes about which they are passionate, nearly 50 percent of cattlemen and women do. Knowing them as well as I do, that doesn’t surprise me, but reminds me again how blessed I am to have such dedicated folks on my Board and across agriculture. These givers help define the future of rural communities where they live by maintaining strong family ties, giving back through time and money, providing leadership and spurring economic growth.

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Looking deeper into the general study of American volunteers, I notice that volunteer rates differ among age groups—and maybe not exactly as I would have expected. The volunteer rate of Generation Xers (that’s me!) has trended upward during the last 11 years, increasing nearly 5.5 percentage points. Volunteering among teenagers (ages 16-19) also has trended positively during recent years, up nearly 3 percentage points since 2007. When it comes to hours spent volunteering, volunteers ages 65 and older spent a median of 90 hours on volunteer activities in 2012, the highest among any age group, and far above the 50 median annual hours served by the general volunteer population.

And giving gives you back. A 2013 study found that volunteering may improve your mental health and help you live longer. Researchers found evidence that volunteers had lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being (without pharmaceuticals….yay!!!).

Given all this, I cannot help but revisit a thought I’ve had several times over the past few years (and I know that others have the same question): beyond individual giving, what is the role of organizations and companies in giving, to improve communities and society? Individual efforts result in major personal returns. Do organizational efforts amplify those returns? And, like the mental health, satisfaction and engagement benefits individuals clearly enjoy, does a giving organization also grow stronger, healthier and more resilient to organizational stressors? I suspect so.

I recently read a blurb in the magazine Associations Now (the membership magazine of the American Society of Association Executives). In it, a highly successful CEO of a trade association in Washington, DC reflected back on many years of service, in preparation for her retirement. She mentioned that a program of volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, spearheaded and organized for many years by the association, was one of the primary sources of member engagement, and fulfillment–aside from the main purpose of the trade association itself. She credited that volunteering program with teamwork, a sense of accomplishment and dedication that bled into all other areas within the association.

For example, (I’m thinking out loud here, always dangerous in a public setting, but I’m feeling mellow) if the organization I manage began an opportunity to volunteer at local food banks twice a year in whatever town our Board meeting is held, what would that do for the organization and Board relationships and functionHominy 12 2014 blog? Would it bring us closer? Make us more effective? Help us communicate better? (Would I be standing there alone in a shelter in downtown San Antonio, holding a 3-year-old can of hominy in one hand and potted meat in the other, wondering what happened to everyone?)

I strongly believe that healthy organizations must not only be willing to change, but must seek out positive change. Stagnant organizations produce stagnant results–a strategy for organizational growth and change is a strategy for the future. We must be responsive to customers, we must accurately predict the market, we must grow our products responsibly and carefully. But my question centers on something different: inclusion of an element heretofore outside of the realm of a traditional business plan. The simple concept that giving, gives back.

(Slightly related author’s note: I highly recommend Adam Grant’s book Give and Take if you haven’t been picking up what I’m laying down so far…and you want to. If you’re bored by this post, enter “hominy” in your search engine and let me know exactly what it is, as I’ve always wondered if it’s a seed, bean, legume, starch or what? I usually whip up some beef posole at some point during the winter months, so any help would be appreciated.)

If you know of research on the effect of an organizational giving effort (and I don’t mean development, or cash gifts. I mean a program of service, spearheaded by an organization, apart from its governance structure), could you share that with me?

I’m clearly in reflective mode as this year closes (reflection is an excellent indoor activity, since the weather today is ‘freeze your boogers’ coldand if you don’t know what that means, you’ve never taken a deep breath at -10 degrees).

Only good comes from reflection. (Right?!?)

“Dreaming isn’t as simple as it sounds. On the contrary, it can be quite dangerous.” ~Paulo Coelho

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