What is volunteering?

The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that in 2009, 63.4 million Americans (that represents just about 1 in every 5 people in the US) volunteered. Those 63.4 million people gave over 8 million hours in service, amounting to approximately $169 billion in volunteered labor.

While those numbers are staggering in national impact, it is all the local organizations and public service entities that could not exist apart from volunteer labor that tell the profound stories. Providing goods and services that the for‐profit sector cannot or does not provide, these organizations depend upon volunteers to carry out their missions.

The question is, “What is volunteering?” Often referred to as either service or community service, there has never been a clear, once‐for‐all definition of the term. The challenge of not having a term is lack of clarity in communication. Energize, Inc., an influential resource for leaders of volunteers, along with their definition of
“volunteer” actually maintains a list of activities to which the term “volunteer” is applied, but do not match their definition.

As someone who is both passionate about volunteerism and presently conducting research specifically in volunteerism in churches, I am grateful there appears some movement toward consensus as to the core elements of a useful definition of volunteer.

Here are what I would suggest are the 5 primary elements of a helpful definition of volunteer:

  • Volunteerism implies active involvement
  • Volunteerism is (relatively) uncoerced
  • Volunteerism is not primarily motivated by financial gain
  • Volunteerism focuses upon the common good
  • Volunteerism implies going beyond one’s basic obligations

So here is a definition, from Susan Ellis, president of Energize, Inc., that I find helpful at capturing those primary elements:

Volunteer: to choose to act in recognition of a need, with an attitude of social responsibility and without concern for monetary profit, going beyond one’s basic obligations.

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2 Responses

  1. The definition by Susan Ellis is interesting, but does volunteering have to constitute “going beyond one’s basic obligations?” Shouldn’t helping one anther be expected of people?

    • That is precisely the purpose of that clause in Susan’s definition. For example, does caring for your elderly mom constitute volunteering? No. She’s your mom. There is a base level expectation that we should care for our parents as they she. This, not volunteering.

      If we all should be expected to help one another, then to qualify as volunteering, the action must exceed that basic expectation.

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