Research in Progress: Exploring foreign-born volunteers as ‘untapped resource’ for organizations

April 25, 2018


By Anli Xiao, Ph.D. candidate at Penn State

Many people assume that foreign-born populations only get help from nonprofit organizations. But even though foreign-born people often have a disadvantaged social status, research says in the United States and other countries they actually help these organizations by providing resources, donating money and volunteering.

Based on an analysis published in the “New American Economy,” foreign-born people are committed volunteers, at least in the United States. On average, they spent more time on volunteering activities than American-born volunteers.

Researchers have found that organizations benefit from foreign-born volunteerism, as they can establish reputation and legitimacy in foreign-born communities and maintain sustainability and governance.

It also brings various kinds of personal benefits for the foreign-born volunteers. Benefits include language and work skills, employment opportunities and expanded social networks and better adaptation to the host country. 

However, the “New American Economy” analysis also showed that despite putting in more time, the volunteer rate for foreign-born people in the United States was lower compared to American-born people. Clearly, as some researchers have said, foreign-born populations are “an untapped resource for civic involvement.” Therefore, it is important for nonprofit organizations to engage with foreign-born volunteers and to maintain healthy relationships with this unique subset of people.

The questions that remain unanswered are how to effectively engage with this group of culturally and politically unique volunteers, and how to maintain good relationships with them. To answer these questions, I reviewed literature in nonprofit strategic communication, foreign-born volunteerism, management and intercultural communication.

I designed an online survey to test how the perception of organizations’ inclusion strategies influence how foreign-born volunteers evaluate their relationships with nonprofit organizations. In addition, my survey also investigates how organization inclusion strategies might facilitate foreign-born volunteers’ expansion of social networks with both people from their own ethnic group and non-ethnic groups in the nonprofit organizations.

As a culturally distinctive volunteer group, I also argue that foreign-born volunteers’ cultural adaptation might affect their feeling of inclusion and their expansion of social networks in nonprofit organizations. This study is unique in that it is one of the first attempts to survey foreign-born volunteers’ evaluation of their relationships with nonprofit organizations they volunteer for and their feelings of inclusion, and it investigates both the organizational and personal benefits of foreign-born volunteerism for the nonprofit organizations and the volunteers themselves. Data collection of this study will be finished in spring 2018 and the results will be shared with the public this summer.

My survey will explain how nonprofit organizations can enhance foreign-born volunteers’ social networking within the organizations, and measure the impacts of interpersonal relationships and cultural adaptation in nonprofit relationship maintenance. To a greater extent, this study also contributes to our understanding of the role of nonprofit organizations in improving foreign-born volunteers’ social inclusion after arriving at a new country.


For further information on this study, email
This project was supported by a Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center.