Oprah, Sean Penn and 64 Million Everyday People Are Doing Good For the World

You have heard about Sean Penn’s Haitian Relief Organization, Oprah’s Angel Network, and the Innovation Challenge that Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropy announced last week.  But have you heard about SocialCoding4Good, the Awesome Foundation, One Good Deed Chicago, generationOn, or Engineers Without Borders - USA?  

What these diverse initiatives have in common is a passion to make the world a better place by harnessing the ideas and energies of volunteers. Some of the projects have benefactors with big bucks; others don’t. Some are high-tech; some are high-touch. Some are local; others global. But all are making a positive difference in the lives of the people they serve and the volunteers who work with them.   

Think this is soft and squishy stuff? Not so. Last year, 64 million Americans volunteered more than 8.1 billion hours with an estimated value of $173 billion, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. And some entrepreneurial volunteers who have been turned on to the excitement of doing good are going on to start business enterprises dedicated to social purpose. At least 100 new Benefit Corporations (“B Corps”) in seven states are putting social and environment goals on an equal par with profits. 

Today’s volunteer experience is not your grandmother’s bake sale, either. Like paid work, volunteer work has been transformed by technology, globalization, and the power of mass collaboration.  Important generational shifts are also underway. Between 1989 and 2010, the rate of volunteering among members of GenX more than doubled, from 12% to 29%. GenXers devoted more time to volunteering in 2010 than ever before – 2.3 billion hours.   

Here’s a sample of the good things that are happening.    

Some volunteers are leveraging technical skills toward global challenges.

Social Coding for Good, a project of the nonprofit Benetech, connects tech-savvy volunteers with open source projects that address humanitarian issues such as hunger, disaster relief, and education. Hackers for Charity recruits technologists to support the IT needs of various non-profits including building computer labs, repairing hardware, and providing training. Engineers Without Borders - USA has organized volunteer professionals and students in engineering, public health, anthropology, and business to design and implement sustainable development projects in cooperation with local partners around the world.  

Some are focusing on local communities issues.

The Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, an “ever-growing, worldwide network of people devoted to forwarding the interest of awesomeness in the universe,” gives grants of $1,000 (raised in $100 chunks from micro-trustees) to the local projects of passionate people. One Good Deed Chicago has enlisted the help of Spiderman and SONY Entertainment to attract city residents to a day of service on June 26: BE AMAZING, STAND UP AND VOLUNTEER! GenerationOn encourages and equips kids to make their mark on the world through local projects they design and carry out.

Some are supported by employers.   

VMware, for example, a California-based global cloud virtualization firm, gives each of their employees five paid days per year to devote to “causes they care about, things that are closest to their hearts.” Microsoft matches the time their people devote to non-profit causes with a $17 per hour benefit, up to $12,000 per employee per year. And A Billion + Change, an initiative of the Points of Light Institute, has set a national 2013 target of $1 billion in pro bono services by professionals recruited through their employers to help build capacity in non-profit organizations addressing critical community needs. 

If you are already plugged into a project-for-good, awesome! If not, you might want to save this list. It could come in handy a month or so from now, when we’re well into a caustic political election cycle and we’re being pummeled with negative campaign ads day and night. At times like that, few things can lift your spirits as much as hunkering down with a good cause. Be ready.