Volunteering in the Community

Trends / Sustainability
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Sep 30, 2021
The term “sustainability” often brings the environment to mind first, but contemporary definitions intertwine social and economic justice with sustainable solutions. Rightfully so, since it’s now widely understood that low‑income communities are already bearing the worst effects of pollution, extreme weather, and heat waves caused by climate change; the pandemic also drew more attention to social determinants of health. So, it makes sense that at Getty Images, throughout 2020, our customers wanted to picture “empathy” and “resilience” through visuals that show how people give back, meaning that we saw rising customer searches for “community service,” “community garden,” “food bank,” “mentoring,” and “volunteering in the community.”

This rising interest in visualizing community service reflects a real moment in the US, when the convergence of the pandemic with the Black Lives Matter movement activated many people. Mutual aid, a form of organizing that emphasizes community reciprocity and solidarity in the face of a crisis, became increasingly popular; the nonprofit Town Hall Project reports that what started out as 50 mutual aid groups at the beginning of the pandemic exploded into 800 across 48 states by May 2020. Collecting and distributing food and resources to elderly and struggling neighbors was par for the course during such a challenging time. Our Visual GPS research found that over the past two years, 69% of Americans participated in some form of activism, and 3 in 4 now prefer to buy from companies that support social good—indicating that consumers are more value‑driven than ever before.

For brands and organizations who want to speak to this rise in activism, but may want to avoid protest imagery lest they repeat Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner mistake, showing how people volunteer their time is a good alternative. Even before the pandemic, volunteering was just a regular part of many people’s lifestyles. On average, 1 in 4 Americans spend time volunteering, and 3 in 5 regularly help out their neighbors. According to Americorps, Americans spend an average of 52 hours a year volunteering, and altogether donate $193 billion worth of their time. So, here are three tips for brands, organizations, and media outlets who want to show how people are giving back to their communities.
Who is supporting whom
Mutual aid groups may have become increasingly popular during the pandemic, but they have deep roots in communities of color. Mutual aid societies date back to the 18th century, when African Americans, excluded from banks, formed their own credit unions; in the 1960s, the Black Panthers provided community resources. Lending circles, in which communities pool and distribute their own money, are common amongst Latinx and Asian immigrant populations. Mutual aid is different than charity in that community members are taking matters into their own hands.

Visually, it’s important to show diversity, and the emotional wellbeing that acts of kindness inspire—but it’s also important to think about how the composition and positioning of the image tells a story about the relationship between the people volunteering and the people being helped. Many volunteers are supporting their own communities from within, so look for a dynamic of mutual respect, care, and dignity.
People of all ages are doing their part
Our Visual GPS research found that, while younger generations may be more likely to protest online or in person, seniors are more likely to volunteer their time and money to good causes. Pre‑pandemic, seniors made up the bulk of volunteers in the US, but when the virus made them vulnerable. younger generations stepped up to do their part. The Red Cross reports that Covid inspired a 20% spike in new volunteer applications, and this year, almost 30% of its volunteer workforce was between the ages of 25 to 49.

Consider how volunteers of all ages may be donating their time, and how they might be focused on slightly different causes or approaches, or offer different skills and experience.
People are supporting their own community from within
Community gardens, tree‑planting, and cleaning up trash in parks and on the beach are great ways to help, but these are only some of the ways that people give back. Nonprofit Source reports that the most popular volunteer activities are food collection and distribution, fundraising, general labor or transportation assistance, and tutoring or teaching. And the list doesn’t stop there: some people also lead artistic activities, coach sports teams, or provide counseling or medical care.

Think outside the box and look for visuals that capture the variety of real, creative ways in which people are enriching their own communities and environments from within. And keep in mind that, as news coverage increasingly connects the dots between climate change and social issues, there will only be more to do in the coming years.
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