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Volunteers sweep the boardwalk in Brooklyn after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy CI boardwalk Sandy sweepers jeh.jpg
Volunteers sweep the boardwalk in Brooklyn after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy
Volunteers complete a cleanup of litter and trash Volunteer CleanUp Outside.jpg
Volunteers complete a cleanup of litter and trash

Volunteering is a voluntary act of an individual or group freely giving time and labour for community service. [1] [2] Many volunteers are specifically trained in the areas they work, such as medicine, education, or emergency rescue. Others serve on an as-needed basis, such as in response to a natural disaster.


Etymology and history

The verb was first recorded in 1755. It was derived from the noun volunteer, in c. 1600, "one who offers himself for military service," from the Middle French voluntaire. [3] In the non-military sense, the word was first recorded during the 1630s. The word volunteering has more recent usage—still predominantly military—coinciding with the phrase community service. [3] [4] In a military context, a volunteer army is a military body whose soldiers chose to enter service, as opposed to having been conscripted. Such volunteers do not work "for free" and are given regular pay.

19th century

During this time, America experienced the Great Awakening. People became aware of the disadvantaged and realized the cause for movement against slavery. [5] In 1851, the first YMCA in the United States was started, followed seven years later by the first YWCA. During the American Civil War, women volunteered their time to sew supplies for the soldiers and the "Angel of the Battlefield" Clara Barton and a team of volunteers began providing aid to servicemen. Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and began mobilizing volunteers for disaster relief operations, including relief for victims of the Johnstown Flood in 1889.

20th and 21st centuries

Volunteers from around the world came to Ithaca, Queensland to address an influenza epidemic through the Women's Emergency Corps (later the Women's Volunteer Reserve) in July 1919. StateLibQld 1 165995 Ithaca influenza epidemic workers, July 1919.jpg
Volunteers from around the world came to Ithaca, Queensland to address an influenza epidemic through the Women's Emergency Corps (later the Women's Volunteer Reserve) in July 1919.

The Salvation Army is one of the oldest and largest organizations working for disadvantaged people. Though it is a charity organization, it has organized a number of volunteering programs since its inception. [6] Prior to the 19th century, few formal charitable organizations existed to assist people in need.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, several volunteer organizations were founded, including the Rotary International, Kiwanis International, Association of Junior Leagues International, and Lions Clubs International.

The Great Depression saw one of the first large-scale, nationwide efforts to coordinate volunteering for a specific need. During World War II, thousands of volunteer offices supervised the volunteers who helped with the many needs of the military and the home front, including collecting supplies, entertaining soldiers on leave, and caring for the injured. [6]

After World War II, people shifted the focus of their altruistic passions to other areas, including helping the poor and volunteering overseas. A major development was the Peace Corps in the United States in 1960. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, volunteer opportunities started to expand and continued into the next few decades. The process for finding volunteer work became more formalized, with more volunteer centers forming and new ways to find work appearing on the World Wide Web. [6]

John F. Kennedy greets volunteers on 28 August 1961 Kennedy greeting Peace Corps volunteers, 1961.jpg
John F. Kennedy greets volunteers on 28 August 1961

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service (in 2012), about 64.5 million Americans, or 26.5 percent of the adult population, gave 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service worth $175 billion. This calculates at about 125–150 hours per year or 3 hours per week at a rate of $22 per hour. Volunteer hours in the UK are similar; the data for other countries is unavailable.


Volunteering as utilized by service learning programs

Many schools on all education levels offer service-learning programs, which allow students to serve the community through volunteering while earning educational credit. [7] According to Alexander Astin in the foreword to Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? by Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, Jr.,"...we promote more wide-spread adoption of service-learning in higher education because we see it as a powerful means of preparing students to become more caring and responsible parents and citizens and of helping colleges and universities to make good on their pledge to 'serve society.'" [8] When describing service learning, the Medical Education at Harvard says, "Service learning unites academic study and volunteer community service in mutually reinforcing ways. ...service learning is characterized by a relationship of partnership: the student learns from the service agency and from the community and, in return, gives energy, intelligence, commitment, time and skills to address human and community needs." [7] Volunteering in service learning seems to have the result of engaging both mind and heart, thus providing a more powerful learning experience; according to Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, it succeeds by the fact that it "...fosters student development by capturing student interest..." [8] :1–2,8 More recent scholarship has found shortcomings in the early assumptions of mutual benefit, since early studies were interested in educational benefits rather than community outcomes. An Indiana study [9] found that the nonprofit agencies hosting student service-learners do not report a positive impact on service capacity, although service-learners do help to increase agency visibility. In the end, service-learning must follow other principles of effective volunteer management such as screening, training, and supervising.

Skills-based volunteering

Skills-based volunteering is leveraging the specialized skills and the talents of individuals to strengthen the infrastructure of nonprofits, helping them build and sustain their capacity to successfully achieve their missions. [10] This is in contrast to traditional volunteering, where volunteers do something other than their professional work. [11] The average hour of traditional volunteering is valued by the Independent Sector at between $18–20 an hour. [12] Skills-based volunteering is valued at $40–500 an hour, depending on the market value of the time. [13] [ failed verification ]

Virtual volunteering

Also called e-volunteering or online volunteering, virtual volunteering is a volunteer who completes tasks, in whole or in part, offsite from the organization being assisted. They use the Internet and a home, school, telecenter or work computer, or other Internet-connected device, such as a PDA or smartphone. Virtual volunteering is also known as cyber service, telementoring, and teletutoring, as well as various other names. Virtual volunteering is similar to telecommuting, except that instead of online employees who are paid, these are online volunteers who are not paid. [14] [15]


Micro-volunteering is a task performed via an internet-connected device. An individual typically does this task in small, un-paid increments of time. Micro-volunteering is distinct from "virtual volunteering" in that it typically does not require the individual volunteer to go through an application process, screening process, or training period. [16] [17]

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering refers to the volunteers who contribute towards environmental management or conservation. Volunteers conduct a range of activities including environmental monitoring, ecological restoration such as re-vegetation and weed removal, protecting endangered animals, and educating others about the natural environment. [18]

Volunteering in an emergency

Volunteers assist survivors at the Houston Astrodome following Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. FEMA - 15322 - Photograph by Andrea Booher taken on 09-05-2005 in Texas.jpg
Volunteers assist survivors at the Houston Astrodome following Hurricane Katrina in September 2005.

Volunteering often plays a pivotal role in the recovery effort following natural disasters, such as tsunamis, floods, droughts, hurricanes, and earthquakes. For example, the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in Japan was a watershed moment, bringing in many first-time volunteers for earthquake response. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami attracted a large number of volunteers worldwide, deployed by non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and the United Nations. [19] [20]

During the 2012 hurricane Sandy emergency, Occupy Sandy volunteers formed a laterally organized rapid-response team that provided much needed help during and after the storm, from food to shelter to reconstruction. It is an example of mutualism at work, pooling resources and assistance and leveraging social media.

Volunteering in schools

Resource poor schools around the world rely on government support or on efforts from volunteers and private donations, in order to run effectively. In some countries, whenever the economy is down, the need for volunteers and resources increases greatly. [21] There are many opportunities available in school systems for volunteers. Yet, there are not many requirements in order to volunteer in a school system. Whether one is a high school or TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) graduate or college student, most schools require just voluntary and selfless effort. [22]

Much like the benefits of any type of volunteering there are great rewards for the volunteer, student, and school. In addition to intangible rewards, volunteers can add relevant experience to their resumes. Volunteers who travel to assist may learn foreign culture and language.

Volunteering in schools can be an additional teaching guide for the students and help to fill the gap of local teachers. Cultural and language exchange during teaching and other school activities can be the most essential learning experience for both students and volunteers. [22]

Corporate volunteering

Benefacto, a volunteering brokerage, describe corporate volunteering as "Companies giving their employees an allowance of paid time off annually, which they use to volunteer at a charity of their choice." [23]

A majority of the companies at the Fortune 500 allow their employees to volunteer during work hours. These formalized Employee Volunteering Programs (EVPs), also called Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV), are regarded as a part of the companies' sustainability efforts and their social responsibility activities. [24] About 40% of Fortune 500 companies provide monetary donations, also known as volunteer grants, to nonprofits as a way to recognize employees who dedicate significant amounts of time to volunteering in the community. [25]

According to the information from VolunteerMatch, a service that provides Employee Volunteering Program solutions, the key drivers for companies that produce and manage EVPs are building brand awareness and affinity, strengthening trust and loyalty among consumers, enhancing corporate image and reputation, improving employee retention, increasing employee productivity and loyalty, and providing an effective vehicle to reach strategic goals. [26]

In April 2015, David Cameron pledged to give all UK workers employed by companies with more 250 staff mandatory three days' paid volunteering leave, which if implemented will generate an extra 360 million volunteering hours a year. [27]

Community volunteer work

Volunteers fit new windows at the Sumac Centre in Nottingham, England, UK. Volunteers installing windows at the Sumac Centre.jpg
Volunteers fit new windows at the Sumac Centre in Nottingham, England, UK.

Community volunteering, in the US called "community service", refers globally to those who work to improve their local community. This activity commonly occurs through not for profit organizations, local governments and churches; but also encompasses ad-hoc or informal groups such as recreational sports teams. [28]

Social volunteering or welfare volunteering

In some European countries government organisations and non-government organisations provide auxiliary positions for a certain period in institutions like hospitals, schools, memorial sites and welfare institutions. The difference to other types of volunteering is that there are strict legal regulations, what organisation is allowed to engage volunteers and about the period a volunteer is allowed to work in a voluntary position. Due to that fact, the volunteer is getting a limited amount as a pocket money from the government. Organizations having the biggest manpower in Europe are the Voluntary social year (German: Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr), with more than 50.000 volunteers per year, and the Federal volunteers service (German: Bundesfreiwilligendienst), with about 30.000 to 40.000 volunteers per year. [29] [30] [31]

Volunteering at Major Sporting Events

25,000 volunteers worked at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. They supported the organisers in more than 20 functional areas: meeting guests, assisting navigation, organising the opening and closing ceremonies, organising food outlets, etc. Volunteer applications were open to any nationals of Russia and other countries. The Sochi 2014 Organising Committee received about 200,000 applications, 8 applicants per place. Volunteers received training over the course of more than a year at 26 volunteer centres in 17 cities across Russia. The majority of participants were between 17 and 22 years old. At the same time, 3000 applications were submitted from people over 55 years old. Some of them worked as volunteers during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. It was the first experience with such a large-scale volunteer program in the contemporary Russia.

The FIFA World Cup in 2018 was supported by 17,040 volunteers of the Russia 2018 Local Organising Committee. [32]

Volunteer days, weeks and years

Designated days, weeks and years observed by a country or as designated by the United Nations to encourage volunteering / community service

Political view

Modern societies share a common value of people helping each other; not only do volunteer acts assist others, but they also benefit the volunteering individual on a personal level. [33] Despite having similar objectives, tension can arise between volunteers and state-provided services. In order to curtail this tension, most countries develop policies and enact legislation to clarify the roles and relationships among governmental stakeholders and their voluntary counterparts; this regulation identifies and allocates the necessary legal, social, administrative, and financial support of each party. This is particularly necessary when some voluntary activities are seen as a challenge to the authority of the state (e.g., on 29 January 2001, President Bush cautioned that volunteer groups should supplement—not replace—government agencies' work). [34]

Volunteering that benefits the state but challenges paid counterparts angers labor unions that represent those who are paid for their volunteer work; this is particularly seen in combination departments, such as volunteer fire departments.

Difficulties in cross-national aid

Difficulties in the cross-national aid model of volunteering can arise when it is applied across national borders. The presence of volunteers who are sent from one state to another can be viewed as a breach of sovereignty and showing a lack of respect towards the national government of the proposed recipients. Thus, motivations are important when states negotiate offers to send aid and when these proposals are accepted, particularly if donors may postpone assistance or stop it altogether. Three types of conditionality have evolved:

  1. Financial accountability: Transparency in funding management to ensure that what is done by the volunteers is properly targeted
  2. Policy reform: Governmental request that developing countries adopt certain social, economic, or environmental policies; often, the most controversial relate to the privatization of services traditionally offered by the state
  3. Development objectives: Asking developing countries to adjust specific time-bound economic objectives

Some international volunteer organizations define their primary mission as being altruistic: to fight poverty and improve the living standards of people in the developing world, (e.g. Voluntary Services Overseas has almost 2,000 skilled professionals working as volunteers to pass on their expertise to local people so that the volunteers' skills remain long after they return home). When these organizations work in partnership with governments, the results can be impressive. However, when other organizations or individual First World governments support the work of volunteer groups, there can be questions as to whether the organizations' or governments' real motives are poverty alleviation. Instead, a focus on creating wealth for some of the poor or developing policies intended to benefit the donor states is sometimes reported. [35] Many low-income countries' economies suffer from industrialization without prosperity and investment without growth. One reason for this is that development assistance guides many Third World governments to pursue development policies that have been wasteful, ill-conceived, or unproductive; some of these policies have been so destructive that the economies could not have been sustained without outside support. [36]

Indeed, some offers of aid have distorted the general spirit of volunteering, treating local voluntary action as contributions in kind, i.e., existing conditions requiring the modification of local people's behavior in order for them to earn the right to donors' charity. This can be seen as patronizing and offensive to the recipients because the aid expressly serves the policy aims of the donors rather than the needs of the recipients.

Moral resources, political capital and civil society

Some files for helping people in a volunteers station in Shenzhen, People's Republic of China Some help files iin a volunteers station in Shenzhen,China .jpg
Some files for helping people in a volunteers station in Shenzhen, People's Republic of China

Based on a case study in China, Xu and Ngai (2011) revealed that the developing grassroots volunteerism can be an enclave among various organizations and may be able to work toward the development of civil society in the developing countries. The researchers developed a "Moral Resources and Political Capital" approach to examine the contributions of volunteerism in promoting the civil society. Moral resource means the available morals could be chosen by NGOs. Political capital means the capital that will improve or enhance the NGOs' status, possession or access in the existing political system. [37]

Moreover, Xu and Ngai (2011) distinguished two types of Moral Resources: Moral Resource-I and Moral Resource-II (ibid).

  1. Moral Resource I: Inspired by Immanuel Kant's (1998 [1787]) argument of "What ought I to do," Moral Resource-I will encourage the NGOs' confidence and then have the courage to act and conquer difficulties by way of answering and confirming the question of "What ought I to do." [38]
  2. Moral Resource II: given that Adorno (2000) recognizes that moral or immoral tropes are socially determined, Moral Resource-II refers to the morals that are well accepted by the given society. [39]

Thanks to the intellectual heritage of Blau and Duncan (1967), two types of political capital were identified:

  1. Political Capital-I refers to the political capital mainly ascribed to the status that the NGO inherited throughout history (e.g., the CYL).
  2. Political Capital-II refers to the Political Capital that the NGOs earned through their hard efforts. [40]

Obviously, "Moral resource-I itself contains the self-determination that gives participants confidence in the ethical beliefs they have chosen", [41] almost any organizations may have Moral Resource-I, while not all of them have the societal recognized Moral Resource-II. However, the voluntary service organizations predominantly occupy Moral Resource-II because a sense of moral superiority makes it possible that for parties with different values, goals and cultures to work together in promoting the promotion of volunteering. Thus the voluntary service organizations are likely to win the trust and support of the masses as well as the government more easily than will the organizations whose morals are not accepted by mainstream society. In other words, Moral Resource II helps the grassroots organizations with little Political Capital I to win Political Capital-II, which is a crucial factor for their survival and growth in developing countries such as China. Therefore, the voluntary service realm could be an enclave of the development of civil society in the developing nations. [37]

Potential benefits of volunteering


Volunteering for community service as part of a college curriculum (service-learning) provides opportunities for students to surround themselves with new people which helps them learn how to work together as a group, improve teamwork and relational skills, reduce stereotypes, and increases appreciation of other cultures. [8] Students participating in service-learning programs are shown to have more positive attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic engagement, social skills, and academic performance. [42] [43] They are also more likely to complete their degree. [44] [45]


There is no strong evidence to show that the act of volunteering improves physical health apart from the benefits of physical exercise that comes with some types of volunteer work. However, participating as a volunteer may improve the quality of life and longevity of those who donate their time. [46] Volunteers are observed to have a reduced mortality risk compared to non-volunteers. [47] Therefore, it is worth noting that the various types of work as a volunteer and psychological effects of such altruistic work may produce enough side-effects to contribute to a longer and more fulfilling life. A study shows a correlation that adults over age of 65 years who volunteer may experience improved physical and mental health and potentially reduced mortality. [48]

Mental health

A worldwide survey was conducted in a study, suggesting that people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships and volunteer work. [49] In comparison, charity in the form of monetary donations, which is another form of altruism (volunteering being one of them) is also known to have a similar effect. [50] [51] Another study finds that helping others is associated with higher levels of mental health, above and beyond the benefits of receiving help. [52] On the subject of service-learning, undergraduate students who volunteered 1 to 9 hours per week were less likely to feel depressed than students who did not volunteer. [53]


In the United States, statistics on volunteering have historically been limited, according to volunteerism expert Susan J. Ellis. [54] In 2013, the U.S. Current Population Survey included a volunteering supplement which produced statistics on volunteering. [55]


In the 1960s, Ivan Illich offered an analysis of the role of American volunteers in Mexico in his speech entitled "To Hell With Good Intentions". His concerns, along with those of critics such as Paulo Freire and Edward Said, revolve around the notion of altruism as an extension of Christian missionary ideology. In addition, he mentions the sense of responsibility/obligation as a factor, which drives the concept of noblesse oblige—first developed by the French aristocracy as a moral duty derived from their wealth. Simply stated, these apprehensions propose the extension of power and authority over indigenous cultures around the world. Recent critiques of volunteering come from Westmier and Kahn (1996) and bell hooks (née Gloria Watkins) (2004). Also, Georgeou (2012) has critiqued the impact of neoliberalism on international aid volunteering.

The field of the medical tourism (referring to volunteers who travel overseas to deliver medical care) has recently attracted negative criticism when compared to the alternative notion of sustainable capacities, i.e., work done in the context of long-term, locally-run, and foreign-supported infrastructures. A preponderance of this criticism appears largely in scientific and peer-reviewed literature. [56] [57] [58] Recently, media outlets with more general readerships have published such criticisms as well. [59]

Another problem noted with volunteering is that it can be used to replace low paid entry positions. This can act to decrease social mobility, with only those capable of affording to work without payment able to gain the experience. [60] Trade unions in the United Kingdom have warned that long term volunteering is a form of exploitation, used by charities to avoid minimum wage legislation. [61] Some sectors now expect candidates for paid roles to have undergone significant periods of volunteer experience whether relevant to the role or not, setting up 'Volunteer Credentialism'. [62]

See also

Related Research Articles

Human capital is the stock of habits, knowledge, social and personality attributes embodied in the ability to perform labour so as to produce economic value.

Human resources is the set of people who make up the workforce of an organization, business sector, industry, or economy. A narrower concept is human capital, the knowledge and skills which the individuals command. Similar terms include manpower, labor, personnel, associates or simply: people.

A nonprofit organization (NPO), also known as a non-business entity, not-for-profit organization, or nonprofit institution, is a legal entity organized and operated for a collective, public or social benefit, in contrast with an entity that operates as a business aiming to generate a profit for its owners. A nonprofit is subject to the non-distribution constraint: any revenues that exceed expenses must be committed to the organization's purpose, not taken by private parties. A wide array of organizations are nonprofit, including most political organizations, schools, business associations, churches, social clubs, and consumer cooperatives. Nonprofit entities generally seek approval from governments to be tax-exempt, and some may also qualify to receive tax-deductible contributions, but an entity may incorporate as a nonprofit entity without securing tax-exempt status.

Pro bono publico is a Latin phrase for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment. Unlike traditional volunteering, it uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.


Service-learning is an educational approach that combines learning objectives with community service in order to provide a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs.

Community service Unpaid work to benefit a community

Community service is unpaid work performed by a person or group of people for the benefit and betterment of their community without any form of compensation. Community service can be distinct from volunteering, since it is not always performed on a voluntary basis and may be compulsory per situation. Although personal benefits may be realized, it may be performed for a variety of reasons including citizenship requirements, a substitution of criminal justice sanctions, requirements of a school or class, and requisites for the receipt of certain benefits.

A social enterprise is an organization that applies commercial strategies to make a positive difference for social benefit. The social impact is funded wholly or partly by reinvesting profits made by the organization to create social capital. Profits are not kept by owners or participants

Points of Light is an international nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in the United States dedicated to engaging more people and resources in solving serious social problems through voluntary service.

City Year Non-Profitable-Organization

City Year is an American education nonprofit organization founded in 1988. The organization partners with public schools in 29 high-need communities across the US and through international affiliates in the UK and Johannesburg, South Africa. City Year teams are made up of 18 to 24 year olds, who provide student, classroom, and whole school support, intended to help students stay in school and on track to graduate high school. City Year is a member of the AmeriCorps national service network, and is supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service, school district partnerships, and private philanthropy from corporations, foundations and individuals.

Civic engagement individual or group activity addressing issues of public concern

Civic engagement or civic participation is any individual or group activity addressing issues of public concern. Civic engagement includes communities working together or individuals working alone in both political and non-political actions to protect public values or make a change in a community. The goal of civic engagement is to address public concerns and promote the quality of the community.

Marketisation or marketization is a restructuring process that enables state enterprises to operate as market-oriented firms by changing the legal environment in which they operate.

The term in kind generally refers to goods, services, and transactions not involving money or not measured in monetary terms. It is a part of many spheres, mainly economics, finance, but also politics, work career, food, health, etc. There are many different types of in kind actions throughout the mentioned branches, which can be identified and distinguished.

Community education, also known as community-based education or community learning & development, is an organization's programs to promote learning and social development work with individuals and groups in their communities using a range of formal and informal methods. A common defining feature is that programmes and activities are developed in dialogue with communities and participants. The purpose of community learning and development is to develop the capacity of individuals and groups of all ages through their actions, the capacity of communities, to improve their quality of life. Central to this is their ability to participate in democratic processes.

Virtual volunteering refers to volunteer activities completed, in whole or in part, using the Internet and a home, school, telecenter, or work computer or other Internet-connected device, such as a smart-phone or personal digital assistant (PDA). Virtual volunteering is also known as online volunteering, remote volunteering or e-volunteering.

Alternative break

An alternative break is a trip where a group of college students engage in volunteer service, typically for a week. Alternative break trips originated with college students in the early 1980s as a counter to "traditional" spring break trips. These trips are usually led by 2 "site leaders" who are students that have already participated in an alternative break and have gone through extensive leadership training.

Nonprofit studies is a multidisciplinary field of teaching and research that focuses on practices of the nonprofit sector and can date back to the 1920s. This area of inquiry examines the management and effectiveness of the nonprofit sector, and has sub-areas of research including administration, marketing, communication, economics, human resources, philanthropy, ethics, law, information technology, social entrepreneurship, grant writing, policy, fundraising, advocacy, volunteerism, data research, and civic engagement.

Human resource planning is a process that identifies current and future human resources needs for an organization to achieve its goals. Human resource planning should serve as a link between human resource management and the overall strategic plan of an organization. Ageing workers population in most western countries and growing demands for qualified workers in developing economies have underscored the importance of effective human resource planning.

Volunteer grants are charitable gifts given to non-profit organizations by corporations in recognition of volunteer work being done by a company's employees. This practice is widespread in the United States.

International volunteering is when volunteers contribute their time to work for organisations or causes outside their respective home countries.


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Further reading