Understanding the Psychology behind Volunteering

Volunteers are vital to a healthy society. Without people willing to go far beyond the duties of their jobs and obligations to family, most of our religious, cultural, and other social institutions simply couldn’t function.

Fortunately, many thousands of people – both young and old, from every economic stratum and every walk of life – generously donate their time and skills to a wide range of professional associations, charities, community groups, educational institutions, political campaigns, social movements, cultural organizations and causes every day. Their motives vary almost as much as the kind of volunteer services they provide.

Young people may be motivated by idealism and the need to be part of something greater than themselves. For many older adults, the desire to give something back to their community and help others pulls them into mentoring, tutoring, and other community activities.

Many people volunteer because they need to feel more deeply engaged in the world. Our jobs and everyday activities can become tedious and leave us feeling empty. But volunteering to help those less fortunate than ourselves gives us a sense of purpose; it raises our self-esteem as well as our status in the community.

Empty nesters or adults with no children of their own may find fulfillment in coaching children’s sports teams in their communities, serving as a Scout den mother or troop leader, tutoring children after school, or being some child’s Big Brother or Sister.

When tragedy or a natural disaster strikes, neighbors pull together to restore their community. Many ordinary people will also step forward to help people in distant communities and foreign countries. Thousands volunteered through organizations like Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and to provide medical and other needed aid to the survivors of Haiti’s recent devastating earthquake.

Organizations like Doctors without Borders and Smile depend on health care professionals willing to devote a few weeks or months of their time to serving poor and war-torn communities with little access to medical aid. Many lawyers also provide pro bono counseling to indigent clients or to fight for civil rights issues they passionately support. Many artists, performers and professionals of every description donate their time and talents to causes that are important to them. These volunteer services may be a way for them to give back to the community or make a positive difference in the world.

Individuals are often motivated by a personal tragedy to raise money and public awareness for a cause. Cindy Sheehan became a full-time peace advocate after she lost her son in the Iraq war. MADD was established by a group of women who had lost members of their families to drunk drivers. Michael J. Fox has been a tireless spokesperson for stem cell research and treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Countless ordinary people as well as high-profile celebrities have worked for causes they believe in.

Of course, some people do charity work simply to project a positive public image or even to assuage feelings of guilt. We may well suspect the motives of celebrities with tarnished reputations suddenly becoming advocates for their pet charities and multinational corporations like BP or Wal-Mart promoting their service to local communities.

But volunteerism can also give us a sense of  personal fulfillment and allow us to develop talents and skills we don’t use in our jobs. Working with community arts organizations or amateur theaters can be a great creative outlet. Volunteer ushers for theaters and concert halls and museum docents not only provide valuable service to these cultural institutions, but get to attend dozens of plays, concerts and art exhibits for free. This kind of volunteer work can be very appealing to retirees or students with very limited budgets.

Finally, for many volunteers the greatest reward is being a part of a strong social network of like-minded people. For many thousands of people volunteerism is a way of enriching their own lives while doing good for others.