Does patient teaching energize you? Could you see yourself leading a hula hoop contest to motivate children to exercise? Do you enjoy working with patients and professionals who appreciate your contributions?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then consider getting involved in community outreach activities your employer supports. Community health nurses offer programs to groups outside the hospital walls to make a positive impact on local citizens’ health behaviors and lifestyle choices. Typically, these programs rely on hospital volunteers to meet the demands of fast-paced group events, which may attract many participants and require complex programming. Many events call for just a few hours of volunteers’ time, giving them a snapshot of community outreach activities. Volunteer nurses can touch and influence many lives at once and serve as agents for change for their communities. (See Community health initiatives.)
Benefits of getting involved
An outreach program offers advantages for both the community and volunteers. The community reaps health benefits from nurses’ expertise. For nurse volunteers, outreach allows them to:
• experience a different style of nursing care, which increases their appreciation for community health nursing and can enhance their outlook on the nursing profession
• see firsthand how plans are implemented to influence whole populations
• observe local citizens engaging in positive behaviors to improve their health
• grow by learning new skills
• mingle with people on the “well” side of the health continuum
• form new friendships and connections in and out of the workplace
• be part of an event where they’re not the planners but valued helpers, which can bring feelings of satisfaction, enjoyment, and camaraderie.
If you work in a hospital, you may feel you’re already giving so much of yourself in your often-hectic job. But being involved in outreach activities can help you slow down and connect with your community beyond hospital walls. It also can benefit your own health and boost your self-esteem. Volunteering may reduce mortality risk, and it gives people a greater sense of self-worth, accomplishment, and pride.
Climbing the career ladder
Many healthcare organizations have career ladders nurses can climb to advance their careers or increase their pay. With most ladders, you need to engage in community service or advance the nursing profession to progress up the ladder; by volunteering, you can accumulate service points on the ladder. Also, many management positions require a certain number of community service hours per year. The time you spend at outreach events can satisfy conditions for either your career ladder or management obligation in a way that reflects and capitalizes on your skill as a healthcare professional. Along the way, you may identify a new career path or skills you want to learn, possibly prompting you to further your education. What’s more, many employers value service behaviors, so adding volunteer activity to your résumé will highlight your professional ethics and sense of social responsibility.
Generating good will
If your volunteer work supports a community outreach colleague in need of assistance, the fruits of your service may extend beyond your own personal rewards to generate good will between departments. What’s more, your hospital can enhance its reputation by employing community-minded staff.
Certain aspects of community outreach may concern you. First, you’re providing your expertise free of charge. You’ve worked hard to attain nursing skills and knowledge, so you may feel that providing it at no cost could minimize your value as a professional.
Also, community outreach enhances the status of your employer, whose name is prominent at an event. If you’re uncomfortable promoting the organization or a particular service it offers, you might want to reconsider volunteering.
In addition, if you’re put on a “go to” list of volunteers who are willing to do outreach, you may get calls to serve more often than you’d prefer. Sometimes, turning down a request for help is hard, but make sure to protect your boundaries and personal time constraints.
Finally, consider legal issues before agreeing to volunteer. (See Legal aspects of volunteering.)
Making the most of your outreach experience
To investigate community outreach opportunities, talk with your manager. Also, find out if your employer’s website has a community outreach page with contact information and upcoming events.
Choose an outreach activity that piques your interest or can advance your career goals. If you’re trying to accumulate career ladder points, choose an activity that promotes the nursing profession, such as speaking about your job on career day at a local school. To add managerial service hours, find an event that dovetails with your clinical specialty or differs from your usual duties. The outreach staff will take your requirements into consideration and find a good fit for your skill level and area of expertise.
Finally, tell coworkers about your outreach experience. This gives you the opportunity to reflect on the activity and may provide motivation for colleagues who may be hesitant to volunteer.
A multifaceted opportunity
Nurses’ involvement in community outreach benefits not just the communities they serve but also the overall health of our nation. Outreach programs provide current health knowledge and techniques; participants appreciate that professional staff are sharing their expertise and giving them a chance to ask questions in casual surroundings.
As a nurse, volunteering reflects positively on your social values, your ethical standards in addressing community health issues, and your willingness to assist colleagues. It shows your commitment to extending your education, skill, and experience outside the hospital to populations in need of your professional nursing care.
Rosemary Miles is manager of government and community relations at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Community Health (DCH): Making Healthy Living Easier. About DCH. Last updated January 7, 2016.
Horoszowski M. 5 surprising benefits of volunteering. Forbes. March 19, 2015.
Stanhope M, Lancaster J. Foundations of Nursing in the Community: Community-Oriented Practice. 4th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby; 2014.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2020.