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March 28, 2021

16 min read

What are common volunteering causes?

Written by Liz Chibucos

Content writer at Humancreed.com

Americans volunteer an average of 52 hours on an annual basis, approximately an hour a week. When you multiply that by the 77.34 million Americans estimated to have volunteered in 2018, that results in 4.21 billion hours of volunteer work each year!

Americans who volunteer tend to stick with one organization and devote the bulk of their time to that specific place or project. This indicates that people donate their time and energy because they care about specific causes like hunger, human rights and environmentalism.

What volunteering causes do you hold close to your heart?

Do you have personal experiences that light a fire inside you?

Do you know what cause you want to focus on, but are unsure of what role you could play as a volunteer?

This article offers an overview on 13 common volunteering causes, including descriptions of the issue, effects it has on individuals and communities, and suggested volunteer opportunities for each.

It is Humancreed’s mission to provide people with valuable information to facilitate volunteerism and community service.

In this article, we’ll explore the following volunteering causes:

Even though you’ll find useful and pertinent information in this article, we will only be skimming the surface. Each of these volunteering causes is an intricate and deep societal issue. There is a reason why these continue to exist throughout the structure of our society.

Choosing volunteer causes that motivate you is the best way to focus your efforts and be productive. So let’s get going! Read on to discover new passions and new ways to help your community.

Hunger

People that experience food insecurity have inconsistent access to healthful foods in sufficient amounts. In 2019, 10.5% of Americans experienced food insecurity at some point during the year.

In 2020, that number has jumped to 23% because of the coronavirus pandemic, with a whopping 29.5% of households with children experiencing food insecurity.

Food scarcity, on the other hand, is a consistent shortage of the most basic food requirements. Enough food exists in the world to feed every single human, yet hundreds of millions of people go hungry each day. Scarcity is most commonly caused by adverse environmental conditions or uneven distribution of resources.

Who experiences food insecurity?

Food insecurity is related, but not limited, to poverty. Certain Americans are disproportionately affected.

  • Black Americans and Americans of Hispanic descent experience food insecurity at more than double the rate that white Americans do.
  • Adults with disabilities also experience more than double the rate of adults without disabilities.
  • People that live in food deserts — areas with a lack of access to affordable and healthy foods — experience high rates of food insecurity.
  • Seniors are frequently on fixed budgets, have mobility concerns or lack the necessary transportation resources.

Hunger is a widespread, serious systemic problem that has grim societal consequences.

Effects of hunger

Since food is an absolute life necessity, food-insecure households must constantly make the choice between feeding their families and supplying other basic needs like medical care and housing costs. This leads people into an unending cycle of debt.

Malnutrition leads to serious health issues like cardiovascular disease and susceptibility to preventable illnesses. Every year, around 9 million people around the world die from hunger-related problems.

Productive ways to combat hunger

Both short-term and long term (high-impact) methods are needed in order to fight hunger.

Short-term activities will treat the symptoms but won’t get at the problem’s root. High-impact activities are those that aim to change the system for the better but may not yield immediate results. 

Short term:

  • food bank volunteer
  • soup kitchen volunteer
  • meal and whole-food delivery

High-impact:

  • Affordable markets and grocery stores
  • Food assistance programs
  • Higher wages
  • Better safety nets

As a food bank volunteer you could donate your time by:

  • distributing food to food pantries throughout your community
  • packing boxes and bags of groceries
  • driving a car to deliver food
  • serving people at food pantries and grocers
  • working in the office answering calls, emails and performing other administrative duties

To assist in other ways, you could also:

  • donate food
  • run a food drive
  • donate money
  • run a money drive
  • advocate spreading the word, participating events
Until the system does change for the better, food banks are a helpful resource for people who are experiencing varying degrees of hunger.

Child advocacy

Early childhood education is an essential part of a child’s overall development. Young children must receive a good dose of the following:

  • Anti-bias education
  • Access to quality healthcare
  • Literacy promotion
  • Exposure to diversity
  • Family engagement
  • Self-discovery and encouragement of identity development

The first eight years of a child’s life are important ones, when the bulk of the physical and cognitive development actually takes place. If children have access to good early education, they’ll reap the benefits:

  • Improved literacy
  • Increased vocabulary
  • Critical thinking and abstract thought skills
  • Good social and behavioral health
  • Self-confidence and a grounded sense of self

If circumstances like unstable family life, abuse or neglect occur, these important developments are interrupted in children.

Effective volunteer causes to help children

Animal advocacy

This is the fight for animals’ rights to live without being exploited, mistreated, abused or killed. Animal advocates focus on the various ways humans and animals interact. Some common causes include:

  • Animal cruelty and neglect
  • Overpopulation of domesticated animals
  • Overpopulation of humans and its effect on animals
  • Animals as property
  • Factory farm practices
  • Vegetarianism and veganism
  • Fishing practices
  • Using animals in experiments
  • Hunting
  • Fashion (fur and leather)
  • Euthanasia
Advocates for animals maintain that the way we treat animals is a direct reflection on us as a society and as humans.

For example, there is a strong correlation between domestic violence and animal abuse.

Productive ways to volunteer for animals

The fight for animal rights is waged on many fronts — at the one-on-one, local, state, national and international levels. There are a lot of ways you can make a difference.

  • Be a lucky pet’s foster parent as an animal shelter volunteer.
  • Offer up your photography skills to photograph animals that are up for adoption.
  • Train service animals to help people in a number of settings.
  • Reduce or eliminate animal products from your diet.
  • Become a zoo volunteer to help promote education and conservation.
  • Volunteer as a veterinary assistant to support vets working in animal shelters.

5.5 million animals wind up in animal shelters each year. As an animal shelter volunteer, you could:

  • Clean cages and enclosures
  • Walk dogs
  • Foster pets
  • Provide administrative assistance
  • Write pet adoption profiles
  • And so much more!

Senior citizen enrichment

In the United States, approximately 1.4 million people live in skilled nursing facilities (SNFs). People are usually admitted to nursing homes or assisted living facilities (ALFs) because they’ve lost the ability to live independently.

People in SNFs are more likely to be experiencing a disability than people still independently living in their own home.

Abnormal effects of aging

As we get older, our physical and mental wellbeing tend to decline. However, there are some unique issues for the elderly that should not be accepted as “normal aging”:

  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Vision loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Seniors often feel mental health effects on senior citizens are often brought on by their sense of feeling betrayed when their family moves them to nursing homes or assisted-living facilities. This can intensify already existing mental-health concerns or cause new concerns to develop an SNF or ALF.

Productive ways of enriching the lives of senior citizens

If senior citizens feel like they’ve lost their sense of purpose, like they’re bored, lonely or unable to exert themselves, a volunteer might be just what they need.

Consider these ideas for volunteering with senior citizens.

  • Prepare and deliver meals
  • Provide entertainment by performing or leading activities like arts and crafts
  • Be a senior companion
  • Advocate for senior-citizen rights through organizations like AARP

As a senior companion, you could:

  • Socialize
  • Have them teach you something
  • Drive them to appointments or to the store
  • Organize and clean
  • Run errands for them

Here is some more information on becoming a senior companion.

Environmentalism

Advocates for the environment promote biocentric issues and encourage responsible stewardship over Earth’s resources. Environmentalists maintain that these issues must remain at the top of our priority list, because without a healthy planet where humans can live, all other progress is moot.

Some common issues related to environmental advocacy are:

  • Air pollution
  • Water pollution
  • Oil and toxic spills
  • Plastic use and disposal
  • Landfills
  • Sustainable lifestyle
  • Recycling
  • Access to clean drinking water
  • Green energy
  • Conservation
  • Urban development and maintaining green spaces

One of the most pressing issues of our time is climate change. In 2020, the highest percentage ever — 81% of Americans — thinks Earth has warmed over the last 100 years, and 76% of Americans think temperatures will continue to rise over the next century if we don’t do anything to counteract it.

Productive ways to volunteer for the environment

Because most items in the above list are big societal issues, the more effective solutions to environmental issues involve legislation and global partnerships. However, like most volunteering causes, a lot of progress can be made at the local level to gradually sway public opinion and influence the direction of things.

  • Join a steering committee at an advocacy organization like Sierra Club.
  • Teach educational programs to children and the general public to spread the word about environmental issues.
  • Volunteer as a docent or tour guide at a museum or visitor center.
  • Become a legal volunteer to help organizations file complaints, write petitions and build new legislation.

As a park volunteer, you could help with green spaces and recreation areas at the local, state or national level, taking on projects like:

  • Maintaining trails
  • Planting vegetation and trees
  • Restoring habitats
  • Water conservation programs
  • Trash and litter pickup
  • Administrative and clerical support
  • Park safety
  • Research and maintaining cultural collections

Health and medicine

Access to health services is another important topic for many people.

Americans in particular have barriers to receiving affordable, quality care. That is something a lot of people want to change.

Common issues with healthcare include:

Results of poor access to quality healthcare

When there is an overall lack of access to healthcare, people do not receive as many preventative services. This means problems are diagnosed much later than they should be, leading to earlier mortality.

Other consequences include:

  • Heavy financial burdens
  • An overall less healthy society
  • Emotional distress
  • More hospitalizations

All of these place the burden of cost back on society and facilities, perpetuating rising healthcare costs.

Productive volunteer activities for improving healthcare

Medical and non-medical volunteers can contribute a great deal, through roles such as:

  • Advocating for better healthcare access
  • Being a patient advocate
  • Donating blood or volunteering at a blood bank
  • Helping with COVID-19 management, like contact tracing, education and outreach.
  • Volunteering at a children’s hospital

As a hospital volunteer, you could:

  • receive useful and informative training
  • cuddle babies at a children’s hospital
  • gather patient information
  • Medical students could put their knowledge to use in a department like patient intake or ICU.
  • Non-medical volunteers could be guides or work in resource centers

Volunteering in the health sector is another fantastic way to give people some relief. You’ll be able to directly see how you’re really making a difference on a face-to-face level.

Literacy and Education

Literacy is one of the main factors that allows people to continue to learn, grow and develop throughout their lives.

Some common causes of low literacy rates include:

  • Undiagnosed disabilities: learning, hearing or vision.
  • Survival choices: more pressing needs like food and shelter must be met.
  • Lack of mentors: No one in the child’s household is promoting reading.
  • Missed school: Violence, frequent family moves or leaving at a young age result in major education gaps for a child.
  • Education not available: Refugee camps frequently have no school.
  • Language barriers: A child doesn’t speak English and can’t participate.

Unfortunately, literacy in the United States is not in great shape. As 2017 statistics tell us, 45 million Americans read at or below a 5th-grade reading level, making them “functionally illiterate.”

Effects of low literacy and limited education

Literacy is an element that passes from one generation to the next. If a parent was raised to enjoy and value reading, their children will most likely have high literacy. But the opposite is also true.

Low literacy has a broad range of serious consequences:

  • Being in danger more often
  • Difficulty understanding and analyzing information
  • Less civic involvement
  • Unemployment and low income levels
  • Isolation and low self-esteem
  • Taxpayer costs

A general lack of access to opportunity and upward mobility is the key detriment. A person who struggles with a low literacy rate will have a hard time getting good-paying work and enriching their life through further education and hobbies.

Productive ways to improve literacy and education access

Whether children are struggling in school, or adults are playing a bit of catchup, volunteering in the education sector can lead to real, lasting change that will improve people’s lives. There are many options, including but not limited to:

As a library volunteer, you could:

  • Assist people with digital tools and computers
  • Tutor students
  • Help with after-school programming like arts and crafts
  • Assist people who are learning conversational English
  • Work with veterans and senior citizens
  • Help with reading programs

Teaching people how to read, improving reading skills and giving people access to reading material is important and valuable work.

Crisis Support

Many people take advantage of crisis support services each year in the United States. In 2019, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received 2.3 million phone calls.

Crisis support is not limited to suicide prevention. There are a number of reasons why people may need crisis services.

  • Emotional distress from death, illness, major life changes or thoughts of suicide
  • Mental health emergencies
  • Addiction interventions or relapses
  • Experiencing violence or existing in dangerous situations
  • Identity changes
  • Societal mistreatment, mislabeling or unacceptance
Sometimes, people experience overwhelming events in their lives. They may require support beyond their own coping abilities and beyond what friends and family can offer them.

Productive ways to help people through crisis

No matter people’s current circumstances or how they got there, crisis-support volunteers can have positive and lasting impacts. There are many ways to support people going through crisis, including but not limited to:

  • Be a calming and supportive voice on a friendship line or crisis hotline.
  • Listen without making judgments; concentrate on the needs of the moment
  • Ask them what would help them
  • Signpost to practical information and resources
  • Ask if there is someone they would like you to contact
  • Avoid confrontation

As a suicide prevention hotline volunteer, you could:

  • train in counseling skills, risk assessment, mandatory reporting and challenging call scenarios
  • help people through emergency situations
  • connect people with social services and helpful resources
  • provide emotional support for people in need.

Many crisis call centers also offer continuing education to their volunteers. You could learn to work with different segments of our diverse population and offer people culturally competent assistance.

Disaster Relief

Large-scale emergencies like hurricanes, food shortages and epidemics (like the COVID-19 pandemic) leave large numbers of people in danger and lacking basic life necessities. 

However, disasters also bring out the best in us, with many people reaching out to help when support is urgently needed. 

Disasters are generally grouped into six categories:

  • Biological: e.g. epidemics, blights
  • Ecological or climatological: e.g. wildfires, droughts
  • Geophysical: e.g. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions
  • Meteorological: e.g. meteorites, cyclones
  • Hydrological: e.g. floods, avalanches
  • Human-made: e.g. armed conflicts, population displacements, hazardous material accidents, pollution.

Disasters can happen at any moment. We sometimes have advanced warning that they’re coming, but other times we’re taken by surprise. One thing is for sure — volunteers can make a real difference during these trying times.

Productive ways to provide disaster relief

Disaster relief doesn’t only happen in the midst of emergencies. There are four stages of disasters, and every stage requires help from volunteers:

  1. Mitigation: preventing and avoiding situations that may lead us to disasters.
  2. Preparedness: planning for the eventuality of disasters.
  3. Response: reacting to the disaster, getting people to safety and eliminating impending dangers.
  4. Recovery: continuing to rebuild and provide support services to the people and areas that were affected by the disaster.

A big challenge for organizations is training and effectively using all of the volunteers who want to help, and managing all of the unaffiliated volunteers who pour in when disaster strikes.

If you want to be a disaster relief volunteer, the best thing you can do is affiliate with an organization and complete training in times of peace, before a disaster occurs.

As a volunteer firefighter, you could:

  • Teach kids about fire safety
  • Install smoke detectors in homes and community buildings
  • Provide administrative assistance with websites or social media
  • Perform safety checks on community members
  • Help fight wildfires
  • Help at care stations for first responders during long incidents.

The Fire Corps is an organization that is open to different ideas for volunteering. Contact them and share your special skill sets, knowledge and interests to see how you can help.

Homelessness (houselessness)

Homelessness, referred to by some as houselessness, is a complex issue to try and define. It includes the many hundreds of thousands of people who do not have shelter meant for human habitation, or who move from house to house with no end in sight.

Major causes of homelessness

The main reasons people become homeless are:

  • Lack of appropriate income due to poverty, unemployment or low wages.
  • No access to affordable housing. Rent and utility costs are so high, they can’t afford other basic necessities.
  • Domestic violence is the main reason women are homeless.
  • Mental illness and lack of access to services.
  • Substance abuse and lack of access to services.

Homelessness has increased in 2020, even prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Effects of homelessness

Homelessness has negative effects on the individuals who experience it, and on society at large. Homeless people experience:

Society also experiences increased crime rates and unnecessary expenditures of tax dollars.

Productive ways to reduce homelessness

It costs way more to arrest, hospitalize and imprison homeless people than it would to engage in preventative, health-based measures. Homelessness requires us to set aside our tendency toward a putative justice system.

  • Non-carceral crisis responses: homeless shelters, coordinated entry, connecting people with social services and outreach to at-risk people.
  • Workforce preparation: career counseling, income stabilization.
  • Permanent supportive housing decreases the need for crisis support like shelters, prisons and hospitals.
  • Short-term rental and housing assistance allows people to focus on putting other pieces of their lives together.
  • Access to effective healthcare is an absolute necessity for reducing homelessness.
  • Offer adult education to people who have found a new path forward.

As a homeless shelter volunteer, you could:

  • be a reassuring voice on a crisis line
  • help people feel safe and welcomed
  • provide administrative and office assistance
  • outreach to community members that are in need
  • assist with special events and pop-up locations
  • advocate for homeless and houseless individuals.

Neighborhood development

Over 50 million people are residents in neglected or dilapidated neighborhoods. People in these situations often experience a reduced quality of life, with additional barriers to accessing services and opportunities.

Common neighborhood issues are:

  • Crime rates
  • Littering
  • Neighbors don’t get to know each other
  • Speeding traffic
  • Abandoned houses
  • Access to affordable housing
  • Access to recycling services
  • Transportation to and from workplaces
  • Unequal distribution of school district resources

Some of these issues are more easily fixed than others.

One thing is for sure — the best results happen when the community pulls together as a cohesive unit and works to improve their neighborhood.

Why is neighborhood improvement important?

It may go without saying, but living in a community where everyone feels safe and supported is very important.

Neighbors that have an ongoing collective commitment to the health of the neighborhood and its residents will establish a stable community. And stable communities lead to:

  • Better access to amenities, transportation, health services and jobs
  • Child readiness for education
  • More adult opportunities for continued education
  • Safe and consistent shelter for more people.
When people build a sense of community and togetherness, they collectively experience a better quality of life.

Ideas for contributing to community improvement

Strengthening your own neighborhood is a great opportunity to offer your unique set of skills and knowledge. There are many areas of improvement that every neighborhood could benefit from.

Beautification

  • Landscaping
  • Gardening
  • Art

Health and safety improvements

  • Trash and litter removal
  • Establishing a neighborhood watch

Resources and amenities

  • Harvesting community gardens and city fruit trees
  • Building new playgrounds

Civic representation

  • Community ambassadors
  • Retrieving allocated city resources
  • Advocating for additional city resources

The list doesn’t stop here. Get creative and contribute your own talents and interests to your neighborhood!

As a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, you could:

  • Donate building materials and tools
  • Help construct new homes
  • Fix homes that require repairs
  • Provide customer service, merchandising, event planning or administrative assistance at a ReStore (donation centers and home-improvement stores)

Human rights

These are known to all as the basic, inherent rights that all humans have. These are deep and complex topics, each with centuries of conversation and study devoted to them. We’ll give you the most valuable introduction to each of these volunteering causes that we can.

  • Racial equity. There is overwhelming evidence that the ugly truth of racism remains very much alive in our society.
  • Immigrant and refugee advocacy. People who leave their homes to settle in a different country experience many challenges and barriers, from human-rights violations, to securing jobs and housing, to overcoming cultural and language barriers.
  • LGBTQIA+ advocacy. LGBTQIA+ individuals are frequent targets of discrimination and harassment. They are disproportionately affected by nonuniform state laws, poverty and availability of culturally competent services.
  • Women’s advocacy. Sexism is a multifaceted problem that has serious and lasting consequences on the health and wellbeing of women.

Disability advocacy

People experience disability in a variety of ways. There are hundreds of disabilities, of varying degrees, and people with disabilities make up an incredibly broad and diverse group.

However, people with disabilities do tend to share certain experiences and frustrations. Here are some common issues people with disabilities experience:

These access limits and barriers can lead to people not being able to do the most basic, everyday things, like going to a park or voting.

Productive ways to help and advocate for people experiencing disability

As a Be My Eyes volunteer, you could:

  • Be on-call from your own phone
  • Assist blind or low-vision users read labels, instructions or navigate their surroundings
  • Help translate the app into different languages

Solve one and others will follow

You may have noticed a lot of overlap in the root causes and consequences of these issues. That’s no coincidence.

Imagine the domino effect of eliminating world hunger, for example. The root causes of hunger would need to be addressed — those root causes are intersectional with poverty, human rights, environmentalism and global cooperation.

What would that mean?

  • all people can afford healthy food (poverty)
  • all people have agency over their own wellbeing (human rights)
  • enough food is sustainably produced (environmentalism)
  • countries are working together more cohesively (global cooperation)

This interdependence is known as intersectionality. It’s an important concept that helps us make sense of people’s lived experiences and root causes of structural issues.

When you write a letter to your state representative about stronger domestic violence legislation, you may also be pulling a woman back from the brink of homelessness.

When you volunteer to clean trash from a river to protect the environment, you’re also protecting the human right to access clean drinking water, which in turn disproportionately affects people of color.

Your contributions to volunteering causes — and for that matter, your daily life decisions — have lasting, cross-sectional effects for people experiencing a wide range of struggles.

Take pride in that the next time you’re volunteering!

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