March 28, 2021

6 min read

Why do people volunteer?

Written by Liz Chibucos

Content writer at Humancreed.com

Volunteering is a popular endeavor for many people in the United States. 77.34 million Americans donate their time, talents and energy each year, pro bono. That’s nearly one-third of all adults in the country volunteering to make a difference! 

But, why do people volunteer? What do they gain by helping other people, who are quite often complete strangers?

Volunteering can create intrinsic change and strengthen society. But it also has positive, lasting effects on the volunteers themselves.

There are many reasons to volunteer, and you need to discover your own: 

1. Practicing altruism and promoting personal values

  • To help others
  • To focus on specific causes
  • To broaden and deepen perspectives

2. Advancing education and career experience

  • To gain work and leadership experience
  • To fulfill school requirements
  • To expand your career network

3. Responding to peer influence and alleviating negativity

  • To join friends or family members
  • To make new friends and find a place in community
  • To escape from troubles
  • To give back from a position of privilege

When you define your personal reasons to volunteer, it sets your expectations and gives you goals to achieve. The result is a more rewarding and fulfilling experience with many personal-growth benefits, such as:

  1. Mental health benefits of volunteering
  2. Physical health benefits of volunteering
  3. Connecting people to one another
  4. Building social skills
  5. Achieving a sense of purpose and fulfillment

A beautiful reality of volunteering is how people from all walks of life become connected. When humans come together with a common goal, it benefits the world, the community and the individual.

Volunteers at Food Bank For New York City
Volunteers at Food Bank For New York City

Reasons why people volunteer

The reasons why people volunteer are very personal. Whether someone is passionate about a particular cause, needs to fulfill graduation requirements, desires to combat their position of privilege or is motivated by something else entirely, there is no question that volunteering is a healthy activity that helps people achieve their goals.

Volunteers at Glide grocery bag giveaway 2019
Volunteers at Glide grocery bag giveaway 2019

Practicing altruism and promoting personal values

Why do people volunteer if it doesn’t benefit them in some way?

Altruistic practices — selflessly providing for others for the sake of their wellbeing — are the main idea behind the concept of volunteerism. When people aren’t concerned with what they might receive in return, their personal value of providing for others is the main motivation for volunteering.

Altruism is one of the big reasons why people volunteer.

Since a volunteer isn’t compensated for their time, volunteering is viewed by many as an altruistic act. Still, direct compensation can come in non-monetary forms like learning a valuable skill, advancing a career or offering a good resume booster.

Helping others

The ultimate goal of altruistic volunteering is to help people. Community service opportunities like the ones listed here are all great options for helping others become healthier and happier.

Focusing on specific causes

People are often motivated to help solve specific issues or work for special causes. Perhaps they feel a connection because of personal experiences. Or maybe they want to learn more about a particular aspect of the community in order to better serve the people who need assistance.

There are many prevalent causes that drive people to volunteer in their communities.

  • Hunger
  • Homelessness (houselessness)
  • Neighborhood improvement
  • Literacy and education
  • Health and medicine
  • Senior citizen enrichment
  • Racial equity
  • Immigrant and refugee advocacy
  • LGBTQIA+ advocacy
  • Women’s advocacy
  • Child advocacy
  • Disability advocacy
  • Environmentalism
  • Animal advocacy

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means. Can you think of other causes that spark your motivation to volunteer?

Broadening and deepening perspectives

A commitment to altruism has a lot to do with “living a day in someone else’s shoes.” People that engage in altruistic behavior are driven by empathy and a desire to understand where other people are coming from.

Volunteer to gain new experiences. Volunteers often find themselves in situations they haven’t encountered before. Community service can take people out of their comfort zones and offer them new perspectives.

Volunteer to meet different people. Getting to know different community members is a very enriching experience. It might mean you:

  • learn about something completely new
  • meet a person with life experiences you’ve never encountered
  • get to know someone with an identity completely unfamiliar to you
  • shine a different light on an issue that you’re already familiar with.

These points go both ways. Just as you can learn from others, you can also make enriching and educational contributions to someone else’s worldview. 

Volunteer to see things from a different point of view. Challenging encounters can push volunteers to see things differently and examine their own perceptions.

Gaining new perspectives is a path toward empathy and a deeper understanding of the plights in our communities.

Volunteers at StudentsCare
Volunteers at StudentsCare

Advancing education and career experience

Volunteering is a fantastic way to gain work and study experience, learn more about your industry and stand out on school and job applications. Advancing education or career is another one of the big reasons why people volunteer.

Why do people volunteer to gain work experience?

We’ve all been there. Every single job you apply for says “previous experience required.” How the heck is anyone supposed to start doing anything?

Volunteering is your answer. It’s the best way to gain work experience in a new field. Volunteering will allow you to achieve these important first steps toward scoring your first professional gig.

  • Learning about your industry. With volunteering experience, you demonstrate that you possess foundational knowledge — something that is very appealing to hiring managers.
  • Stand out from the crowd. Schools and employers frequently must wade through a huge number of submissions, so they notice and appreciate volunteer experiences on applications. Volunteering demonstrates initiative, empathy and sincere interest in a student’s or worker’s chosen field.
  • Demonstrating leadership abilities. Volunteering also offers leadership roles like coordinators and program managers. Successfully organizing and motivating other people is a valuable skill to develop, and a notable experience to include on an application or resume.

Whether you’re a student or a person changing careers, building a background of knowledge and experience in a given field is monumentally beneficial to people who are just getting started in an industry.

Why do people volunteer to fulfill school requirements?

Some schools feature compulsory volunteering as a prerequisite to graduating. Some require volunteering for admission, too.

Specialized fields often have demanding volunteering requirements of students. They perhaps even have mandates on an annual or monthly basis.

Medical schools, for example, want to see prospective students working as volunteers at least 10 or 15 hours per month before they’re even admitted to medical school. Working in the medical industry is such a rigorous and high-stress job, schools want to see that an applicant has had some initial experiences and understands what the job really entails before they’re admitted.

Why do people volunteer to expand their career network?

Professional networking is an important part of career building that is a never-ending process. Whether you’re just entering a field, you’re a budding professional climbing the ranks or you’re establishing yourself as an expert, you’ll probably encounter these situations at some point in your career, all of which benefit from good networking.

  • You’re about to graduate and need to enter the workforce.
  • You like your job role but not the company you currently work for.
  • You’re due for a big promotion.
  • You want to enter into a more specialized role in your industry.
  • You want a career change.

Sometimes, we get caught up in the same small circle of people. It’s hard to grow if you don’t discover new possibilities.

Volunteering can provide an opportunity to get to know new people by having substantive discussions.

Perhaps you’ll meet like-minded folks who have interesting ideas for starting a business, or learn of a company that could use your services.

Volunteers at Love. Period event
Volunteers at Love. Period event

Responding to peer influence and alleviating negativity

Not everyone is motivated by personal-advancement goals or values. Sometimes, the reasons why people volunteer boil down to outside influences or inner turmoil.

Joining friends or family members

Many people get into volunteering through the suggestion of friends or family. Perhaps they’re underwhelmed by the idea, and someone they care about convinces them to try it. Or perhaps they feel like they don’t have the time but don’t want to disappoint, so they give it a shot.

Whatever the motivation or lack thereof, when people wind up having a positive volunteer experience, they often come back for more. Following the suggestion of family or friends can help these folks break through that initial barrier.

If you’re one of those people being challenged to find some inner-motivation, reach out to family and friends. They could help you find a direction and get you started.

Making new friends and finding a place in community

Why do people volunteer when they’re not motivated by career-advancement goals or personal values? 

As we’ve already discussed, volunteering is a great way to meet new people. Many volunteer opportunities are microcosms of the larger community. They can offer grounding for a person who:

  • is transitioning between social groups
  • is new to town
  • is going through identity changes
  • just wants to see some new faces.

We’ll soon discuss the health benefits of volunteering in more detail. But volunteering is medicine for people who yearn for new experiences in their lives, who feel lonely or stuck in a rut. 

Escaping from troubles

Volunteering may provide a distraction and positive outlet for people dealing with negative situations in their lives.

When someone is going through hard times, it’s important to be able to do good and feel connected with others.

Doing good for your community can offer feelings of great relief, and even pleasure. Receiving positive reinforcement from people you personally helped can heal and inspire you.

Giving back from a position of privilege

Those more privileged among us may be more motivated to volunteer by our own guilt than by altruistic intentions. These are a few examples of characteristics that give certain people privilege in our society:

Ideally, volunteering will deepen a person’s understanding of structural issues and guide them toward an issue they become passionate about. These are more effective and sustainable reasons why people volunteer, rather than being purely motivated by guilt.

Some people also experience a combination of both altruism and (healthy) guilt. They regret that society benefits them more, but they also sincerely don’t want it to be that way and want to put in the work.

The Black Lives Matter movement is a good example of something that has opened up a lot of discussions about self-improvement and taking responsibility for what each one of us personally has control over. It has led us to questions like:

  • What is the difference between good intentions and actually backing up those intentions by doing the work?
  • Am I uncomfortable recognizing my own privilege, and if so, why?
  • What can I do in my own community to help fix ongoing structural and societal problems?

These are questions that every one of us should be asking ourselves. And if it motivates you to get out there and volunteer, great! That is a display of empathy and a step toward equity that many more of us need to take.

Volunteers at San Francisco - Marin food bank
Volunteers at San Francisco - Marin food bank

Benefits of volunteering

Benefits of volunteerism abound. From positive social interactions, to mental and physical health, to personal growth, to quality of life, there is no question that benefits of volunteering will make you a stronger and happier person.

You can find many of these incentives in all of the above examples we’ve already discussed. Plus, these beneficial qualities are also perfectly good reasons why people volunteer. After all, who doesn’t want to be healthier?

Volunteers at Women's march (Glide, San Francisco)
Volunteers at Women's march (Glide, San Francisco)

Mental health benefits of volunteering

Altruistic volunteering compensates you in immaterial and spiritual ways.

  • good feelings
  • a sense of purpose
  • learning for the sake of learning
  • fulfilling the need to socialize
  • satisfying the need to improve or work on projects
  • taking on a parental or mentorship role.

The many mental health benefits of volunteering have been proven through research. Volunteering helps people soften the effects of depression and anxiety, combat loneliness, increase a sense of self-worth and self-esteem, and reduce the risk of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Volunteers at running marathon (by Edgewood Center)
Volunteers at running marathon (by Edgewood Center)

Physical health benefits of volunteering

While it may be more obvious that mental health improves through volunteerism, it might surprise you to know that physical health also improves. Volunteering keeps you active and may even promote weight loss. It’s also been proven to lower blood pressure.

Volunteers at San Francisco city impact
Volunteers at San Francisco city impact

Connecting people to one another

Volunteering develops and strengthens a sense of community. Volunteers meet new people and make new friends. They may very well meet folks they wouldn’t otherwise meet, thus expanding their awareness of their community’s breadth and diversity.

Volunteering expands our worldview and makes us deeper thinkers. These are appealing reasons why people volunteer — to better understand people, the essence of things and the world itself.

Volunteers at ACCFB
Volunteers at ACCFB

Building social skills

Volunteering improves self-confidence and social skills. Interacting with new people while working toward a common cause really helps you develop good conversation and listening habits, and it could introduce you to new communication styles as well.

Volunteers at San Francisco SPCA
Volunteers at San Francisco SPCA

Achieving a sense of purpose and fulfillment

Every human needs a sense of purpose. While some of that purpose can surely be gleaned from satisfying work or family life, there’s a special place in a person’s heart reserved for altruism. People with a strong sense of purpose throughout their lives are healthier and happier. 

Many volunteers claim to get more out of volunteering than they put in. They’re referring to the immense satisfaction they feel when they participate in an activity they know is helping people.

The positive feelings people experience when they come together as a unified group to accomplish a charitable goal simply cannot be overstated.  How would it make you feel to see positive changes emerge in your own community because of the very work you’ve done? Pretty darn good, we’re willing to bet! Humancreed’s goal is for everyone to experience that fantastic sense of accomplishment and togetherness.

Community service touches on all aspects of the human condition. People have a need and a desire to know each other, work together and solve problems.

Volunteers at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley
Volunteers at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley

Final thoughts

Giving without expecting anything in return is the purest form of reward.

Inevitably, you do receive gifts in return: new skills, new friends, fresh perspectives, increased self-confidence, advancing career experience, improving your health and experiencing tremendous fulfilment.

Volunteering allows you to help yourself as you help others.

Why do people volunteer in their communities, if not for all of these perks and benefits? Through volunteerism, we can all work together to improve our shared environment, improve quality of life and raise standards of living for everyone in our community. And that’s what life is all about!

How to start volunteering

Start your volunteering journey

Now that we’ve explored the many reasons why people volunteer, perhaps your own intentions have come into better focus. If you want to join the 77 million Americans that already make a difference in their communities, continue reading to learn about how to start your own volunteering journey.

Further related articles

Share article

Bring initiatives to life