Giving Time

Why people volunteer and why it matters

Posted Oct 01, 2018

pixabay/CC0 creative commons
Source: pixabay/CC0 creative commons

“Only a life lived for others is worth living.” — Albert Einstein

How does this job offer sound? You’ll need to be available on short notice, including late at night and on weekends. You could be asked to do anything from helping at community events to responding to life-threatening emergencies (and sometimes putting your own safety on the line). You might be asked to manage a large team of people. This job also involves a lot of regular training. Oh, and you won’t be paid for any of this. Would you take the job?  

This might not necessarily appeal to everyone, but if this sounds like an opportunity you’d jump at, then you’d fit right in with Western Australia’s 26,000 emergency service volunteers. Without volunteers, Australia’s emergency services would be in serious strife. These volunteers donate an incredible amount of time and effort every year to keep communities safe, without expecting a cent in return. The emergency services aren’t the only industry benefiting from volunteers. Across both Australia and America, between a quarter and half of the population volunteer each year to causes including education, sport, health, religion, and social services. That’s a lot of people contributing their time! So what do they get in return? What motivates people to volunteer?

We recently had a series of discussions with emergency services volunteers and asked them how they preferred to be acknowledged for the work they put in. Every single one of the volunteers we spoke to responded along the lines of “that’s not why I’m here. I don’t do this for any sort of reward”.  So why do they do it? For the volunteers we interviewed, the things that kept them coming back were the people they volunteered with, being able to help a community that appreciated their help and having the opportunity to learn and apply a variety of new skills.

In fact, learning skills, making a difference, and belonging to a community are key reasons why people across all sectors volunteer. In a previous post, I talked about the importance of feeling competent, autonomous and related to others in order to be motivated. Volunteers who get the opportunity to develop and use skills, participate in decisions, and build connections with other people are more likely to keep volunteering.

I also mentioned in a previous post that motivation through meaning and enjoyment get you the most committed employees. The same goes for volunteers. If volunteer work is designed and managed in a way that increases enjoyment and meaning, people contribute more volunteering hours than if they are driven by rewards or their ego. You might think that external motivation isn’t relevant to volunteers since they don’t get paid. But when we look at ‘compulsory volunteering’ programs or when people feel pressured by close ones to volunteer – while it may seem like a good way to create new volunteers – it makes people less likely to stick with it once the obligation is fulfilled.

But it doesn’t mean people don’t reap benefits from volunteering. Indeed, research shows there are significant mental health benefits to volunteering. It can be a means to make new friends, build new skills or try things out of our comfort zone. It can also be a means to help loved ones. A case in point is someone close to me who recently lost her husband to a degenerative disease. When her husband was admitted to a nursing facility, she decided to volunteer for the patient advocacy committee as treasurer. She found great support through them and felt she could make a difference in the lives of the patients. After her husband’s passing, she decided to continue volunteering for the committee not only as a way to show gratitude for the great care her husband received but also because she made friends there. She found a way to put her career skills to use for the common good and keep active after retirement.

There are countless ways to volunteer. It can involve a long-term commitment within a particular organization or short-term one-off events. It can be outdoors, in an office environment or done from the comfort of your home. It can involve all kinds of skills, including physical, emotional and technical ones. No matter how you do it, it is definitely worth every minute you put into it.

This post was co-authored with Courtenay McGill


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