What Is Volunteering?

Volunteering is offering time and skills for an organization, group, cause, or business, generally without compensation. For job seekers, volunteering can be an opportunity to gain experience or learn new job skills. Some job seekers may also find that volunteering fosters their personal growth and builds their confidence. Many volunteer opportunities, especially those with nonprofit organizations and government-funded entities such as parks and schools, better the community.


Nonprofit organization: A business whose goal is to support an issue of public or private concern rather than achieve financial gain.

In the early twenty-first century large numbers of Americans are involved in volunteering. According to a 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the volunteer rate among Americans was 25.4 percent between September 2012 and September 2013. Approximately 62.6 million Americans volunteered at least once in that period.

Studies have shown that volunteering can increase a job seeker's chances of finding employment. According to a June 2013 report by the federal agency Corporation for National and Community Service, those who volunteer have a 27 percent better chance of finding a job than those who do not volunteer. This percentage is unaffected by gender, age, ethnicity, geographic area, or job market conditions. The study found the correlation to be strongest for job seekers lacking a high school diploma (volunteering increased their odds by 51 percent), and those living in rural areas (55 percent higher odds).

What Are the Different Types of Volunteering?

Volunteer opportunities can be found in various settings and can be grouped into several categories. The most common type is traditional volunteering, which involves committing to help an organization, group, cause, or business, usually on a regular basis. Volunteer opportunities are

There are many volunteer opportunities available regardless of your level of education.

There are many volunteer opportunities available regardless of your level of education. ILLUSTRATION BY LUMINA DATAMATICS LTD. © 2015 CENGAGE LEARNING®. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Volunteering rate at 25.4 percent for year ending September 2013.” The Editor's Desk, February 28, 2014 [online] from http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2014/ted_20140228.htm.

frequently offered by groups and organizations that are faith based or educational or that offer youth services, social services, and community services. Traditional volunteering can involve a wide variety of activities, such as coaching a children's sports team, tutoring students after school, working in a charity thrift shop, or working for a political campaign or environmental cause.

The Peace Corps

One of the most respected volunteer programs in the United States, the Peace Corps has been working around the globe for more than 50 years. The mission of the Peace Corps is to complete international service projects while fostering understanding between the United States and the developing world. Volunteers commit to two years of service and receive housing and a small stipend for living expenses while overseas. President John F. Kennedy established the program with an executive order on March 1, 1961, and the first group of volunteers traveled to Africa later that year.

Over the course of its history, more than 215,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 different host countries. In the early twenty-first century the Peace Corps operates in 65 host countries, and its volunteers represent a broad cross section of the U.S. population. Volunteers are statistically more likely to be female than male. In 2013, 24 percent of Peace Corps volunteers were minorities, 7 percent were married, and 8 percent were older than 50. Unlike many volunteer programs, the Peace Corps is extremely selective. Many would-be volunteers never complete the rigorous application process, which involves medical, dental, and psychological screenings in addition to a review of references and credentials. The application process can sometimes take several years.

If you like the idea of serving in an organization like the Peace Corps but are unable to commit to the rigorous screening process or to a two-year commitment, you might want to investigate the AmeriCorps program, which matches volunteers with full- and part-time service opportunities in the United States. AmeriCorps assignments generally last from 10 months to one year. AmeriCorps provides stipends for education or student loan repayment to all participants who complete the program.

Another common type of traditional volunteering is offering a day of service, sometimes on an annual basis. For example, the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance annually honors the victims, survivors, and those who served in response to the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. Each year on this day, communities across the country engage in charitable projects such as food drives, neighborhood reclamations, and home renovations for low-income families. The day was held informally beginning in 2002 and was designated as a federally recognized event by the U.S. Congress in 2009.

A student-volunteer teaches computer skills to older adults.

A student-volunteer teaches computer skills to older adults. TPG/GETTY IMAGES.

Gap-year volunteers can take part in Ameri-Corps, a government program that requests a commitment of ten months to a year, depending on the project, and working in specific areas in need in the United States. Other long-term volunteering programs are abroad. The Peace Corps is another federally funded volunteer program that involves committing to a minimum of 27 months doing service in a developing nation.

Other more recent phenomena are voluntourism, which combines volunteering with a vacation; online volunteering; and microvolunteering. Online volunteering is not done at a central location but from home or a place where you have an Internet connection. These volunteers collaborate and support organizations and groups virtually, spending a certain amount of time on a project or committing a few hours per week to a cause. The United Nations has a global volunteering program, the UNV Online Volunteering Service (http://www.onlinevolunteering.org ). Similar to online volunteering is microvolunteering, which also done via the Internet. This involves a very small commitment (usually no longer than a few hours) to a specific project for a cause or organization.

What Are the Characteristics of Volunteering?

Organizations, groups, causes, and businesses have a wide range of needs, so the activities available to volunteers are nearly unlimited. The requirements of volunteer programs also vary widely. Some programs require a specific commitment, while other volunteering arrangements are more informal. You may give as little as one hour or more than a year, depending on your availability and the needs of the organization, group, cause, or business. AmeriCorps, for example, requires the equivalent of a part-time or full-time workweek as part of a yearlong commitment. Some people choose to give their time and energy to more than one volunteer activity.

Generally, you do not have to pay any money to offer your time, but certain programs abroad or in voluntourism situations require you to pay certain expenses. A small number of volunteer programs, such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, involve receiving some form of payment or compensation. If you volunteer for the Peace Corps, you receive a monthly stipend for food, housing, transportation, and incidental expenses. You are also given medical and dental benefits. When your 27 months are completed, former volunteers receive a “readjustment allowance” (some $7,000, paid in monthly installments) to help you reintegrate to life in the United States. Full-time AmeriCorps volunteers also receive a living allowance, health care, and child care and become eligible for the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award if they successfully complete the program.

Interestingly, the percentage of volunteers in any given age spread does not vary all that much.

Interestingly, the percentage of volunteers in any given age spread does not vary all that much. ILLUSTRATION BY LUMINA DATAMATICS LTD. © 2015 CENGAGE LEARNING®. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Volunteering in the United States,” News Release, February 24, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/volun.pdf.

How Do I Choose Where to Volunteer?

If your objective is gain experience that will lead to employment, you should consider your career interests and goals when deciding where to volunteer. For example, if you are interested in or want to know more about social work careers, you could volunteer at a homeless shelter, food bank, or social services agency. If you are considering pursuing a career in education, you can gain valuable experience from volunteering as an after-school tutor or a classroom assistant in an elementary school. If you want to work in forestry, there are numerous opportunities at local, state, and national parks. Professional organizations related to your career goals may also offer volunteer opportunities.


Keep in mind that volunteering can enhance your job skills in unanticipated ways, so you should keep an open mind when deciding where to volunteer. Coaching a children's sports team, for instance, might give you an opportunity to learn leadership, teaching, and organizational skills, which can be highlighted on a résumé. Activities such as participating in a river cleanup in a national park or medical volunteering abroad can give you experience in your chosen field, but they can also build leadership and organizational skills as well.

What Are the Advantages of Volunteering?

For a job seeker, there are many benefits to volunteering. By volunteering, you can acquire firsthand familiarity with a job, business, industry, field, or organization without making a commitment to a paid job. If you are looking to change careers, volunteering allows you to explore new possibilities with little obligation. You can volunteer a few hours a week in your new desired job area to gain experience and make contacts. Volunteer programs generally offer flexibility in scheduling, allowing you time to continue your job search.

Volunteering allows you not only to develop skills and knowledge but also to network professionally and socially, build your reputation, and add to your résumé. You are also doing good, which makes a positive impression on employers. Employers see volunteers as ambitious, socially responsible, and charitable. Many employers are interested in job seekers who have shown that they will work hard and be motivated even when they are not getting paid.

On a personal level, volunteering builds self-esteem, confidence, poise, social and professional skills, interpersonal and communication skills and allows you to experience personal growth. These characteristics will help you not only as a job seeker but also as a person. Volunteering has been shown to improve physical, mental, and emotional health. If you have been unemployed and searching for a job, volunteering can give you a sense of purpose, reduce depression, and increase your happiness while having a positive impact on the lives of others.


Volunteering is particularly effective for two groups of job seekers. For those lacking a high school diploma, skills, or professional connections, volunteering can help them enter the workforce. For those who have had a break in employment, volunteering is a way to gain skills and experiences to update résumés while seeking a new job.

What Are the Disadvantages of Volunteering?

There are a few potential drawbacks to volunteering. Almost all volunteer opportunities are unpaid. There is also no guarantee that you will gain the skills you want or have the experience you desire. You might not make the professional contacts you hoped for with every volunteering opportunity. For some volunteer experiences, especially abroad, you might have to pay to cover fees and expenses, which can be costly.

If you are currently working or are conducting a full-time job search, you will have to volunteer in your free time. This time can be a burden, depending on the position and the other demands in your life. Also, some volunteer experiences can feel like a job, despite being unpaid, which can add to your personal stress levels and lower your morale.

Where Can I Find Volunteering Opportunities?

The easiest place to find places to volunteer is online. There are numerous websites dedicated to listing volunteer opportunities. Among them are the sites run by the nonprofit organizations Idealist (http://www.idealist.org ) and VolunteerMatch (http://www.volunteermatch.org ). Individual groups, organizations, businesses, and causes often list volunteer opportunities on their websites.

There are various U.S. government agencies that support or offer volunteer programs. The two most prominent agencies are the Peace Corps and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), whose programs include AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and the Volunteer Generation Fund. The CNCS lists many service opportunities on its website (http://www.nationalservice.gov ). Federal programs had five million Americans in volunteer service in 2012.

How Do I Prepare to Volunteer?


You should choose a volunteering opportunity that best meets your short-term and long-term career goals, your motivation for volunteering, your current lifestyle, and your financial limitations. The process of becoming a volunteer is often less formal than applying for a paid job. Although some opportunities require a résumé or references , some do not. You might have to fill out an application or undergo a background check. An interview is often part of the process of becoming a volunteer.


Reference: A person who can be asked for information about another person's character, abilities, etc.

If you are participating in a service program abroad, you will have to fill out paperwork, obtain a passport, and gain medical clearance. Specific programs often have other requirements. To be considered for the Peace Corps, for example, you must be at least 18 years old and have a bachelor's degree or relevant work experience to be eligible to apply. You will then spend several months undergoing a selection process that includes an interview, a medical examination, and legal clearance. After being accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer, you will have to undergo three months of preservice training.

No matter where you are volunteering, be prepared to treat the experience like a job, even if you only volunteer one hour per week. This includes being reliable and committed and showing professionalism during your volunteer hours. Creating a positive impression will help you gain the career-enhancing benefits that volunteering can offer.