Girls and Volunteering: Turning Ideas into Action

Girls are optimistic about the future. So says the Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI), which has been conducting discussion groups with girls in and out of Girl Scouting. The GSRI study asked girls about issues they care about and the kind of program they'd most like to join. One major insight was that even though today's girls have lived through fear and uncertainty in the last several years, they continue to have unwavering optimism about the future and their ability to make a difference in the world.

Making a Difference

With natural disasters that have occurred over the last few years, and recent tragic violence at schools, girls have been worried about their own families and others. At the same time, girls' goals for the future are very encouraging. A common theme voiced by girls in the study was that they are striving to "be their best selves." Girls believe that the key to being their best selves lies in looking beyond themselves and volunteering for causes they care about. Girls love to feel they are making a difference and having an impact on the world. They also love to see the effects of their efforts.

Girls' desires to give back cover a wide range of interests: "being a good mom," "giving back to the world," "helping animals," "doing community service," "being a leader," "ending poverty and hunger," "going to college," and "curing cancer." Through giving back, however, girls also get something for themselves: experiences that help them gain new skills and develop empathy for others. In focus groups, girls related that success will come from having experiences that broaden their horizons, help them overcome fears, and travel to new places.

Long-lasting benefits

Girls' insights mirror recent research on volunteering. Community service not only benefits society, it enriches the lives of people who provide it. Young volunteers have higher self-esteem, perform better in school, build leadership skills, and learn how to solve community problems better than their counterparts who do not volunteer. Research conducted by the Washington-based coalition Independent Sector also shows that adults are twice as likely to volunteer if they participated in community service as teens.

Girls clearly need ways to learn about social issues that will then turn their empathy, interest, and compassion into action. Yet how they do this depends on the cognitive, social, and emotional stage of development they are in. As girls mature, "setting goals" leads to "motivating others" which leads to "critical thinking skills" in teens. Above all, volunteering needs to be fun and relevant to girls' lives—two top reasons why girls choose and continue to participate.

Teens: Ahead of the Curve

A national study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau and Independent Sector demonstrated the high rates of teen volunteering in the United States. The study found that 55 percent of U.S. teenagers volunteered, a number nearly double that of adults. The study also found that the nation's teenagers performed more than 1.3 billion hours of community service that year. Additionally, 74 percent of youths who volunteer do so through a religious organization or a group or youth leadership organization such as Girl Scouts.

With Girl Scouts' longstanding history and commitment to volunteering, the organization will continue to lead the way in promoting civic participation in new and innovative ways.

For a copy of the study cited above, "Youth Helping America Building Active Citizens: The Role of Social Institutions in Teen Volunteering," visit www.nationalservice.gov.