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College kids want to save the world, just don’t ask them to volunteer

A new report finds that the number of college students volunteering has hit an all-time low.

College kids want to save the world, just don’t ask them to volunteer
[Photo: Flickr user Jirka Matousek]

More than three quarters of entering college students feel it’s their duty to help others in need, a sentiment that’s grown steadily in recent years. But how much are they willing to commit? On average, just 26% of all university students typically volunteer—lower than the number among high schoolers.

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“We’re at an all-time high of entering college students’ desire to do good, but we are far from an all-time high in college students actually doing good,” says Robert Grimm, the director of University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, which has compiled a report called “Good Intentions, a Gap in Action” about this trend. The number of college students volunteering is the lowest of all age groups, with higher interest at 29% among high schoolers, and then a surge that surpasses that on into young adulthood and middle age.

[Image: Do Good Institute]

All that’s troubling for a number of reasons. Theoretically, volunteering should increase among the college set because they’re better educated, more affluent, and have more flexible schedules, all factors associated with people taking time to lend a hand at nonprofit organizations. When that doesn’t happen, students don’t just miss out on chances to grow professionally and emotionally: The Do Good report shows that many aren’t going on to volunteer as adults either, shutting down a key source of manpower for aid groups, and even shutting down a source of funding–many groups use volunteering as a step to court future donors.

Of course, many young people are in precarious financial positions, which makes community service less of a priority. (The Do Good Institute report shows how high school and college volunteering rates differ by state, too, which shows the trend is happening across the country. The place with the worst participation during higher education is Arkansas, followed by New York, New Jersey, and Texas. The best? That’s Utah, followed by Wyoming and Kansas.)

“I think the reason is that interest will not translate to action without the right opportunities,” adds Grimm. “And too many colleges and universities aren’t offering enough opportunities to take advantage of the high interest that students have today around engaging in social impact and social innovation.”

The University of Maryland has tried to address that by encouraging students to act both more entrepreneurially and more philanthropically, as using business as a force for good is often more sustainable than just making ad hoc donations. As undergraduates, students can now take courses that cover things like how to manage a philanthropic investment fund (there’s plenty of basic economics there), as well as how to evaluate and award grants to community nonprofits (they actually do that with some limited funding).

Other curriculum covers how various policy changes might reshape communities, and how to actually launch and scale a successful nonprofit or social impact company. The school also offers study abroad opportunities alongside philanthropies and nonprofits overseas including in Israel, Jordan, and China, and offers paid philanthropy fellowships through the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.

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The university recognized this push in 2016 with the formalization of the Do Good Institute inside its school of public policy. DGI operates as a research center and campus hub for social innovation. Its goal is to find new ways for entering college students to get excited about acting philanthropically, which includes creating a campus-wide curriculum that explores the power and impact of social ventures, and in many cases encourages kids to launch their own and continue to nurture them on campus organizations aimed at supporting those ideas. DGI also runs its own accelerator to support these concepts, which includes coaching and in some cases limited seed funding.

“We’re pioneering a new model of higher education that works to engage every student from orientation to graduation with experiences inside and outside the classroom that enables them to make the biggest impact they can on a cause that they care about,” says Grimm, who notes that while other institutions may offer social impact classes, most aren’t as hands-on or widespread. “What we want to do is engage students throughout their college experience. We want to offer them numerous courses in any school or college where they could advance a project or venture, and we want to provide support so that their educational experience around doing good is core to their college experience.”

The idea stems from a nearly decade-old campus-wide Do Good Contest, in which students who have developed their own ventures are judged annually in a game show-like format that Grimm likens to cross between American Idol and Shark Tank (Kevin Bacon was the inaugural judge). So far, Do Good-affiliated students have produced a variety of traditional and nonprofit ventures, including the Food Recovery Network, which redistributes leftover dining hall food to nearby food banks and has since expanded to about 230 total campuses, two “ugly produce” companies that work to save and ensure the sale of less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables, and the recently established James Hollister Wellness Foundation, which reclaims and recycles expensive prescription drugs. The group won a top prize at the 2017 Do Good Contest to earn $5,000 in funding, and has since delivered medicine to over 17,000 people in developing countries.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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