The Surprising Truth About Volunteering

A recent thread on The Student Room asked whether or not it is a good idea to volunteer in a charity shop. Just about every reply focused on the fact that it was good for CV brownie points. In fact, this reason was mentioned far more than those warm, fuzzy motivations such as ‘putting something back into the community,’ or ‘helping those less fortunate than ourselves’. A consequentialist argument would say that as long as they get the job done, their motivations don’t matter. But compassion is not only about consequences: It’s about intentions, too. Are the students of today so calculating as to only help others in order to get a leg-up in the job market?

I decided to take a walk to my local charity shops and do some impromptu empirical research. Three charity shops, five second-hand books and two seven-inch single purchases later, I finally plucked up the courage to ask one of the assistants why he was volunteering. Luckily, I struck gold. Oli was a student who had recently signed up as a volunteer. I asked him why he’d signed up and he said he wanted to put something back into the local community and also get work experience in the retail sector. “I thought it would look good on my CV”, he said. So, my straw poll of one suggests that, amongst other things, volunteering, helps both the helper and the helpee.

Oli manning the tills at the local Oxfam shop

Oli manning the tills at the local Oxfam shop

Social Psychology is beginning to shed light on the personal benefits of volunteering. Astonishingly, Francesca Borganovi and her team at the LSE have found that volunteering once a week is the equivalent in the happiness index to adding $50-80,000 to your annual paypacket. Weekly volunteers are 16% happier than their non-volunteering peers, other things being equal. Before we all rush out to sign up for the WI jumble sale, we need to get over the thorny issue of reverse causation, though. Do people volunteer because they are happy or does volunteering make you happy? Causation and correlation are all too often conflated in matters such as these.

Luckily, Borgonovi has gone to great pains to guard against this reverse causation bias. Her study of a sizeable cohort of American volunteers takes into account variables like church attendance, sociability, community spirit, income, marital status, employment status and all those other factors which might influence the likelihood of someone taking up volunteering. When all the numbers were crunched, the outcome strongly suggested that it is the volunteering that causes the happiness rather than the other way around.

Mental health website, health guide.org, advises its readers to take up volunteering as a way to build a healthy mind and body. They say “It can benefit you and your family as much as the cause you choose to help. Dedicating your time as a volunteer helps you make new friends, expand your network, and boost your social skills…. It builds self confidence, combats depression and helps you stay physically active.”

Thanks to research such as the Charities Aid Foundation’s 2013 study, Britain’s Civic Core: Who Are The People Powering Britian’s Charities?, we are able to piece together a picture of what sort of person volunteers. Interestingly, it appears to be 20-odd million people, some 36% of the UK, who form the bulk of volunteers. This group provide 87% of volunteer hours and give 81% of all money given to charity. It is also interesting to note that it is this same group which contributes 77% of participation in various civic associations. Within this 36%, however, there is a committed core of volunteering enthusiasts. This hardcore group of just 9% of UK adults account for 51% of all volunteer hours. The average member of this so-called ‘Civic Core’ is female, upper-middle class (skilled professional or senior manager) and most likely retired. She has probably lived in the same area for over 10 years, votes regularly, has a university degree and is several times more likely than average to attend church.

Volunteer photo courtesy of ccbar (Flickr)

Volunteer photo courtesy of ccbar (Flickr)

Data from America shows that, far from being the stereotypical retired or bored granny with no social life, the middle-aged professional woman who is America’s average volunteer tends to have a busy life. She is already juggling family and work commitments, along with perhaps caring for aging parents and going to the gym. She tends to be computer-savvy and follows world affairs on the web. She fits the model of a happy, energetic person with a full schedule of daily activities. In opinion polls, she has been found to posess an unusually high degree of faith in the efficacy of charities and to believe that local and national government have the power to change society. She sees her own can-do attitude reflected in the institutions around her. She scores high on social cohesion, showing trust in the general public. Yala’s 2005 study of French humanitarian workers found that many have experienced quasi-institutionalised backgrounds in the past. They are used to being in communities where the boundary between private and public life is blurred, for example: Scouts, boarding schools and holiday camps.

Social networking and being part of a community are probably crucial factors in the positive relationship between happiness and volunteering. The psychological motivations for volunteering and the behavioural outcomes of volunteering are two sides of a whole. The happy and enthusiastic person spreads happiness and enthusiasm into her environment. It might not all just be about some sort of karma, though. Borgonovi suggests another underlying reason why volunteering makes people happy. This time, it’s a sociological explanation based on a reversal of normal power structures.

In her ordinary life, the upper-middle class woman might find herself in situations where she is jealous of others. She might normally be preoccupied with status and longing for a bigger and better house or keeping up with the Joneses. Volunteering provides relief from everyday grasping by “shifting aspirations and by moving the salient reference group in subjective evaluations of relative positions from the relatively better-off to the relatively worse-off.” By focusing on those in need, she feels happier. The English word “compassion” seems to imply some sort of pain on the part of the compassionate person – a “co-feeling” of sympathetic distress. This etymology might actually be a bit of a red herring. According to Borgonovi’s research, empathic emotions bring happiness and well-being. Feeling concern for others makes you happy, not sad.

Tom McKee, president and owner of Volunteer Power identifies what he calls the three levels of volunteering. He says that people often join an organization with so-called ‘level one’ motivations. Level one motivations are essentially self-interest: They include CV brownie points, work experience or gaining skills in retail, finance or marketing. Others join for level two motivations, which are to help out a friend or to widen their social circle. It often takes months or years to reach level three which is the motivation of genuine belief in a cause. Level three motivation is the passionate striving for a just cause and is independent of any personal or social intentions. It is possible that it is not until we reach level three, then, that we might feel the – for want of a better word – ‘karmic’ benefits of empathy. Until then, it’s totally fine to volunteer for our own benefit – to relieve boredom or to make friends (or even just to appear kind).

The charity sector in which people like Oli from the Oxfam shop is embedded is undergoing changes at the moment. Large international charities are having to become ever more professional and calculating. The number of paid employees is rising massively in the charity sector, along with the levels of bureaucracy, efficiency and accountability. The reasoning behind this is that government funding now makes up a substantial portion of people like Oxfam’s income. More than a third of voluntary sector income now comes from the state, and charities are restructuring to increase opportunities to obtain government finance. The big charities have become de facto NGOs. From the point of view of Social Psychology, the big charities and students like Oli are creating a virtuous circle where positive people make positive changes to a world of which they themselves are a part. In an odd way, then, Oli and Oxfam are the same. They want to help others, but they also want to be successful.




Borgonovi, F (2008), ‘Doing well by doing good. The relationship between formal volunteering and self-reported health and happiness’ in Social Science & Medicine, 2008, Vol.66(11).

Clavien, C. (2010) Je t’aide… moi non plus. Editions Vuibert, Paris.

Kolm, S. (2006) ‘Introduction to the economics of giving, altruism and reciprocity’. In S-C. Kolm and J. Mercier Ythier (eds.) Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity: Foundations. Vol.1. Elsevier, Oxford.

Yala, A. (2005) Volontaire en ONG : L’aventure ambiguë. Editions Charles L.opold Mayer, Paris.