Volunteering comes in many forms – everything from small acts of thoughtfulness to undertaking large and time-consuming projects for free. There’s the Good Samaritan who rushes to the aid of someone who’s fallen on the street, the office worker who organizes going-away parties for departing colleagues and the professional who donates their services to a local charity. What these voluntary actions have in common is not just that they’re done without the promise of tangible rewards but also that someone has put themselves forward for something above and beyond what’s required.
Volunteering covers such a wide ranges of activities that there’s probably not a single psychological mechanism behind all of it, but there are a few recurring themes.
Making a Difference
There’s a phenomenon called “the helpers high” which is basically that doing something positive for someone else gives us a boost. We might feel pleased that we’ve done something with our time and effort which is useful and played a small part in making the world a better place. It might even let us feel a bit heroic. But more than that, helping reassures us that we’re not powerless, anonymous cogs in a giant wheel – we can make a difference.
Making a difference is certainly the goal of volunteers who donate their time and energy to a cause they’re passionate about. People often set up or work for charities and campaigns because they are concerned about a particular issue and feel that something needs to be done. They want to do something about the problem, but taking action is also a way to release the anger, pain or fear an issue arouses in them, especially if it has affected them personally.
People who undertake volunteer work sometimes cite contribution as their motivation. They want to give something back to a community which has supported them or pass the kindnesses and good fortune they’ve received on to someone else. It comes from feeling grateful for their blessings but there can also be a hint of karma in this urge – a desire to balance the books. Others believe they have a responsibility to do what they can when something is brought to their attention. Responsibility comes from feeling personally connected to what’s happening around you. You’re not operating in isolation; you are part of the world you see and its business is your business, too. But it’s a double-edged sword.
Emotionally, personal responsibility doesn’t have the same high as helping or making a difference. It can, in fact, have some lowering effects because it stems from stems from a sense of obligation which can create fellings of guilt and anxiety. In the extremes, some people feel they ought to give back because they somehow didn’t deserve such good fortune (although they probably worked quite hard for it). The idea of balance can even make people worry that something will be taken away if blessings aren’t fully appreciated or reciprocated. Volunteers with an overly developed sense of responsibility who confuse “can” with “must” will often take on more than is healthy for them or beat themselves up over anything they didn’t do. For these people, volunteering offers a relief rather than a high.
People working for free don’t face the same requirements and expectations they would doing the job for money. When it comes to voluntary work, some volunteers want to gain experience in a field they hope to enter professionally someday or put a talent to good use. Others want to be involved in structured and meaningful activities but their ability to take on paid work might be limited by age, health, family commitments or lack of qualifications. In these cases volunteering provides a middle ground between leisure and employment.
These volunteers are motivated by interest, even if its nothing more than a desire to meet new people or expand their horizons. Volunteering offers an opportunity to try things out in a way that is often more accessible, supportive and less risky or demanding than either setting out on your own or jumping into a job. This can be especially helpful for people who want or need to work in a protective environment. It also appeals to those who don’t feel comfortable charging for their services perhaps because they’ve not yet got the confidence or have sufficient income from elsewhere.
Of all these types of volunteering, it’s probably only the people with a heightened sense of personal responsibility who volunteer simply for the sake of it. The others put themselves forward to perform a particular action. The fact that they make these efforts without reward or by requirement shouldn’t be surprising or unusual as to be placed in a separate category. Gain is one motivation for human behaviour, but by no means the only one.