4 reasons why people volunteer
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
I have always been drawn to community. When I was a child until my twenties my parents led the local youth group, so our house was always full of people dropping by to say hello. That coupled with five siblings, I've become pretty accustomed to always being around people. Not much has changed since then, I now live with five housemates and we eat a community meal once a week. I guess you create the life you like around you.
In my career this has been much of the same. Being the second youngest of six means that it is very easy to get involved in groups, as my older siblings had often already broken in - leaving a path in their wake. So through late high school and University I volunteered for lots of organisations (working mainly with children from disadvantaged backgrounds and people with disabilities). After University I have mostly worked for not-for-profits in roles supporting volunteers. I recognise now that it was a privilege that I had lots of time to be able to give to volunteering - lots of people don’t have this privilege as they need to work throughout their university degree (or forego further study as they are required to work to live). I met many young people in one of my previous roles who at eighteen were the primary breadwinners for their family paying for their younger siblings’ education, family disability payments or general living expenses.
So from this perspective I have written this article. I have been lucky to meet many volunteers and in fact my best friends are all people I have met through volunteering. Obviously, we all have unique reasons for why we do things, so please feel free to share in the comments if one of these reasons resonates with you, or if you have volunteered for a different reason.
1. To do good
For many people they have a desire to give back to their community. They are innately altruistic and see the world and how life circumstances have lead to others not having as much opportunity and they want to give their time to even this balance. This can also be from a place of gratitude and a recognition that in a different circumstance they could be experiencing poverty or disadvantage.
I think many people have a deep sense of social justice and an understanding that we all deserve better. We know that due to systematic poverty others have been given a rough deal. So people volunteer their time to work at resolving these injustices.
I have been fortunate to meet some inspiring people who are volunteering because at a different point in their life, they received support. I have a friend who came to Australia seeking asylum who started a weekly soccer club. He did this so when his friends were freed from the detention centre they could have a weekly community event. This is something he does without any financial incentive as, he believes and knows, it is something that is needed.
2. To find belonging
There is a great social benefit to volunteering and often the connection you find is huge as you meet like minded individuals who hold similar values. The connection and friends you make through volunteering is different to that which you make in other contexts. As a group, your focus isn’t on each other but on a common cause. So, rather than being friends because you both like Brooklyn 99 (which I’ve been getting into during this iso period) you become friends because you have a passion for education or alleviating poverty. This deeper reason enables you to become friends with a greater mix of people from all different demographics.
I have met a number of people whose lives changed from regular volunteering. All of a sudden they discovered they were a part of a community and that all their best friends were people they met while standing side-by-side handing cups of soup in the streets of Fitzroy. Because the focus of their friendship was external to themselves, they broadened the scope of their relationship.
3. To find their purpose
I feel a lot of people volunteer to develop a better understanding of themselves and their purpose. For example, I initially studied teaching, and through my experience in the community I became more drawn to community action, which lead me to decide to work in a not-for-profit sector.
Every Summer and Winter I was fortunate to attend and lead holiday camps at Don Bosco Camp in Dromana. This was an incredibly formative experience and it was in remembering the huge benefit of these experiences that Felicity and I decided we wanted to start our own company. When I think about my friends from that camp and the work they are doing now, (anecdotally) I feel many of them found their purpose through that experience. I could easily name over 10 who are either teachers or youth workers and I think these decisions were influenced from their experience volunteering on camps for kids.
Volunteering is a great way to develop skills and to test out a particular field of work before jumping in. I often encourage University students to volunteer their time on programs aligned with their passions as a way to develop tangible and transferable skills for when they enter the workforce. The other benefit is that you are exposed to leadership roles and ways of thinking that you might not have access to as a junior worker in a corporation.
4. To gain energy for life
A lot of my mates say the Friday Nights they spend volunteering on the Soup Van are some of the best nights of their week.
In the best volunteer experiences there is an energy that is unmatched in most paid positions. I think the generosity of giving your time freely leads to a different way of seeing the value of your time, the people you are volunteering with and the people who are receiving the support. It is these types of experiences (when done well) that energise you and provide motivation for other aspects of our lives.
I think it would be amazing to explore how we as a society can enable more time for people to pursue their passions. Spending a lot of time volunteering in my youth allowed me to learn the skills that landed me my first jobs. It also provided me with lifelong friends. This was a freedom I had that many do not. If we all had more time, I’m sure that many people would volunteer and pursue causes that are dear to their heart. To do this we’d need options like a four day work week and basic income. These are concepts that once seemed unfeasible but in the current climate are looking more and more possible. This would enable more people the freedom to volunteer, as I really think it is a freedom that many people do not have.
I was lucky to speak on this topic for the Francesco Economy. If you are interested in hearing perspectives from around the world you can see the recorded Zoom here: