Volunteerism Definition

Volunteerism is voluntary, deliberate service to others over time and without compensation. A key element of volunteer behavior is that the person freely chooses to help and has no expectation of pay or other compensation. Mandatory public service required by courts or schools would not meet the definition of volunteerism. The volunteer behavior must include service work, not simply a donation of money or goods. This service is long-term, repeated service, such as giving time weekly to help at a local hospital. The volunteer service is only a service if it benefits others who want help. For example, the Boy Scout who helps the blind person across the street when the blind person wants to move independently (and perhaps in another direction) would not be a volunteer.

Who Are Volunteers?

VolunteerismPeople from youth to older adulthood engage in volunteering. The organization Independent Sector estimates that about 44% of adults and 59% of teenagers volunteer, with the largest group of volunteers being from 35 to 55 years old. Wealthier people volunteer more because they have more spare time and more flexibility in their jobs. The wealthy may also have a social obligation, called noblesse oblige, to engage in philanthropy and good works. Those who volunteer are likely also to be the most generous givers. Women volunteer slightly more often than men do, but men give more money to charities. Better-educated people also volunteer more than less-educated people, because of the skills and resources they have to offer. Finally, those people with more connections to the community, such as people living in smaller, rural communities and people who have connections to religious and cultural group memberships, volunteer more often.

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What Motivates People to Volunteer?

  1. Gil Clary, Leslie Orenstein, Mark Snyder, and others have examined motivations for volunteering. A person is driven by value expressive motivation if his or her reasons for volunteering derive from the values he or she holds dear, such as a concern for the poor. When a person’s primary goal is to learn about a particular problem or group of people or to have new experiences, his or her primary motivation is understanding or knowledge. Those with a social adjustive motive volunteer because friends, family, or social demands encourage them to do so. Others are motivated by career aspirations. For example, college students may volunteer to enhance their job skills or increase their probability of educational or career goals. Some people volunteer to relieve their personal problems, such as the guilt of having too much time on their own hands or needing a positive outlet for their insecurities. This is called ego-defensive or a protective function. On the other hand, those with an ego-enhancing motivation volunteer to increase their own self-esteem. In a volunteer job, a person can be valued by the staff and feel competent at a minor job. Finally, some people volunteer out of community concern. They demonstrate concern for a particular community as defined by geography (a neighborhood) or by a particular condition or need (concern for those with cancer).

Allen M. Omoto and Mark Snyder have discovered that when motivation type matches recruiting strategy, people are more likely to volunteer. For example, when a student is motivated to seek a job, he or she would be more likely to volunteer in response to advertisements highlighting job skills. When motivation is met in volunteering experience, people are likely to continue to volunteer. For example, a person who wishes to build confidence will be more likely to continue volunteering when a coordinator praises him or her for a job well done. Contrary to expectations, researchers found that “mandatory volunteerism” as a college requirement made some students less likely to freely volunteer in the future. This is one reason why volunteerism requires helping to be freely chosen.

Benefits and Costs of Volunteering

Benefits to an organization that uses volunteers include the money saved from having to hire staff to do the same job. A research report from Independent Sector puts the 2005 value of volunteer time at $18.04 per hour, including wages and benefits, saved by an organization for each hour a volunteer serves. The organization also benefits indirectly because volunteers become representatives and advocates for the organization, sharing information and positive views with the community. Costs to the organization include the costs of training the volunteers, the staff time to coordinate volunteers, and the chance that volunteers may offer lower-quality service than paid staff.

Benefits to the recipients of help from well-trained volunteers can be obvious: The homeless mother gets served a meal, the immigrant learns to read and write, and so forth. Costs include not getting expert help or receiving inconsistent help when volunteers are not available. Benefits to the volunteers themselves include increases in their sense of self-esteem and self-confidence, decreased loneliness, the making of friends, and more favorable attitudes toward clients served. In older adults, the increased activity and social stimulation of volunteering has positive health effects and increases life satisfaction. In youth, those who volunteer have a lower likelihood of being arrested. Costs to the volunteer include any costs associated with volunteering itself, such as transportation, and emotional costs of working with those in need, such as sadness when a client dies. Conflicts between volunteer time and time spent with family and friends and the potential stigma of associating with those who have less desirable traits in society are social costs that volunteers incur. Benefits to society include the promotion of the common welfare of the community, the ability to expand services, the defrayal of dollar costs, the increase of the skills base in the community, and the instillation of norms of prosocial behavior.


  1. Clary, E. G., Snyder, M., Ridge, R. D., Copeland, J., Stukas, A. A., Haugen, J., et al. (1998). Understanding and assessing the motivations of volunteers: A functional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1516-1530.
  2. Independent Sector. (2001). Giving and volunteering in the United States: Key findings. Washington, DC: Author.
  3. Snyder, M., Omoto, A. M., & Lindsay, J. J. (2004). Sacrificing time and effort for the good of others: The benefits and costs of volunteerism. In A. G. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil (pp. 444-468). New York: Guilford Press.