What Is Volunteering?

group of people volunteering and packing boxes of food donations.

So, what is volunteering? Volunteers contribute to the overall health and well-being of communities around the world. Organizations rely on volunteers because they almost never have sufficient resources to hire enough staff to support their programs. A robust volunteer program also adds legitimacy to an organization and demonstrates community support for their work. Some examples of volunteer work include:

  • Delivering meals to homebound seniors, manning the phone lines at domestic violence centers and serving in the volunteer fire department. 
  • Keeping neighborhood parks and waterways clean and safe for everyone.
  • Tutoring or mentoring youth on everything from homework to soccer skills. 
  • Walking dogs, cleaning cages and helping with adoptions and feedings at animal shelters.
  • Responding to natural disasters.
  • Ensuring that museums and cultural festivals run smoothly by taking tickets, leading tours and staffing information booths.

Volunteering is an excellent way to learn more about a particular profession or issue. It also allows you to network with people in your community. And finally, volunteering can be a fun, meaningful way to make new friends.

As you consider volunteering, it’s important to consider what will work best for your schedule, situation and lifestyle. For example, time commitment can vary, depending on the opportunity:

  • One-time: taking tickets at an arts festival or handing out water to at a 10K race
  • Episodic: signing up every few months to serve meals at a homeless shelter or clean a beach or hiking trail
  • On-going: volunteering for a suicide prevention hotline one night a week for six months or mentoring an elementary school student during the school year
  • Vacation or school break: venturing beyond your community to participate in a volunteer project during your time off

In addition, volunteer projects can also be structured in different ways:

  • Traditional: a role or project managed by an established nonprofit organization or government agency
  • Do-It-Yourself/Entrepreneurial: a role you propose to an organization or a project that you create because you can’t find a volunteer opportunity that fits your interests or availability
  • Service learning: volunteering as part of a classroom curriculum
  • Workplace: opportunities facilitated by an employer or time-off given by an employer for volunteering

Finally, opportunities can be designed or tailored for different groups of people:

  • Families: Volunteering offers families the opportunity to spend meaningful time together while also doing good. Children learn compassion and good citizenship and are introduced to new experiences and people of diverse backgrounds. Family opportunities can match any schedule, age or interest. Examples include: cleaning up a local park, “adopting” a grandparent at the local nursing home, and serving meals at a shelter. To get started:
  • Involve all family members in the conversation about volunteering. With everyone included, there’s a higher likelihood they’ll be engaged in the opportunity itself. Discuss your family’s skills and interests. For example if your three year-old can sort socks, separate colors, and fold wash clothes, she has the skills to sort clothes during a clothing drive; if your teenager likes cooking, consider helping out with a food preparation and delivery service for homebound seniors.
  • Opportunities in familiar places such as the children’s school, your place of worship, or a favorite museum allow your family to see how their service helps support their community on an ongoing basis. Doing Good Together, your local volunteer center, and Idealist.org are great resources for opportunities.
  • Once you’ve picked a project, have a conversation about why the job is important and why you’re looking forward to the experience. Afterwards, build on the experience so your family will be further enriched by it. Some guiding questions could be: “What did you learn that you didn’t know before?” and “What did you like most about the experience?” “How did what we did today help our community?”
  • Seniors: senior volunteers can draw on their life experience and professional expertise to offer significant insight, ideas, and energy to organizations. Comprehensive resources on senior volunteering include the AARP’s VolunteeringVolunteering & Healthy Aging from Volunteer Canada and the National Council on Aging’s Community Action & Volunteering.
  • Employees: workplace volunteering offers opportunities for team-bonding, boosting staff morale and fostering positive community relations. To learn more about workplace volunteering, talk with your Human Resources department. If no program exists, propose starting one. For more information about workplace volunteering, look at the resources offered by Business in the CommunityCaring Companies: Engagement in Employer-Supported Volunteering and Employee Volunteering: The Guide.
  • People with disabilities: several organizations aim to increase access to volunteer opportunities for people with disabilities. To learn more, visit Disability.gov’s Community Life, the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange from Mobility International and the National Service Inclusion Project, which offers toolkits, an FAQ and database for disability advocates across the United States.