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What is volunteering?

So what is volunteering anyway?

Words and phrases like "altruism" or "doing good" come to mind. As do dictionary definitions on Wikipedia and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (or even this great example from World Volunteer Web).

Here are some examples of people "doing good:"

  • Scene #1: Elizabeth, 75 years old, spends four hours a day, three days a week, at a local food bank, helping to answer phones and file paperwork in the main office.
  • Scene #2: Jack, a 15 year old, goes skateboarding on a Saturday only to find that the neighborhood skatepark is a wreck. He could wait for grounds crews to clean it up but instead texts some friends who show up with their boards and some garbage bags.
  • Scene #3: Sarah is a 43 year old lawyer who spends her days (and most evenings) as a partner at a high profile corporate law firm. One of her family's favorite weekend activities is gardening so they occasionally spend a Saturday afternoon at a community garden that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to local schools.
  • Scene #4: Jorge is a 62 year old retired accountant. In addition to travel and other personal pursuits, he gives professional advice on the financial plans of a handful of nonprofit organizations. This is mostly done by email so he's found that he can get feedback to them whether he is at home or around the globe.
  • Scene #5: Sam is a 24 year old recent college graduate who is in the process of looking for paid work in the nonprofit sector, preferably with an organization that focuses on public health. While he spends much of his time researching and applying for jobs, he also serves on the board of a local free clinic.

Q: Which one is volunteering? A: All of them

These stories are all very different: 

Among these diverse characteristics are common elements:

  • an interest, desire, and/or willingness to do good
  • contributing time, skills, and energy towards something that doesn't benefit only one's self, friends, or family
  • not expecting any sort of reimbursement or payment in return for one's efforts. Choosing how, where, why, and when to get involved.

Other threads in these stories might seem atypical for volunteering.

  • For example, all of these examples are great ways to get to know others. Whether for professional networking (in addition to making invaluable contacts, volunteering with a nonprofit is a great way to learn more about potentially working in the sector or a particular field… but we'll get to that later), to make new friends, or to just understand a little more about others' ways of life.
  • All of these examples of volunteering also demonstrate opportunities to gain new skills, practice existing skills in new ways, and learn more about complex issues like hunger, health care, and the environment.
  • Lastly, while the end result of all of this philanthropic activity may have been something that serves a greater good, in all cases, the volunteer gains something valuable from the experience as well: being part of a community, enjoying a cleaner skate park, spending time outdoors with family, keeping skills sharp, networking, learning more about nonprofit governance, and so on.

Speaking of value, keep reading to learn more about why volunteers are important and how volunteering can benefit you...

Curious about national and international service corps like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps? Learn more here!