Why Volunteer? The Hidden Payoff of Donating Time

charity volunteersWhenever someone tells me how amazing it is that I’m a counselor, the first thing I think of is how amazing it is to learn so much from the people I work with.

As a career coach at the New York Public Library, I had the pleasure of working with a range of amazing people. With respect to volunteering, one young woman comes to mind. Unlike many of the people who came to see me, she had a steady job with decent pay and good benefits. She had even been promoted a few times, and seemed a bit concerned that she might be promoted again.

Initially, I thought this seemed odd. My appointment calendar was full of people who were unemployed for the first time in decades and would be grateful for seemingly any job. Here, I had someone whose biggest fear was getting a promotion.

As it turned out, this woman had started out working as a bank teller, and her most recent promotion had landed her in the department responsible for garnishing account holders’ funds based on court orders. She found the work morally repugnant, but didn’t see a way out.

As I spoke to her and found out more about her background and what she was doing in her spare time, I realized that, without even knowing it, she had hit on an effective coping strategy: she volunteered for local nonprofits during the bulk of her free time, and she found it incredibly energizing and fulfilling. For some people, a schedule packed with work followed by volunteer hours would seem daunting, but for her those hours were keeping her grounded.

Another person used his free time between jobs to teach computer classes for seniors. Not only did he get the satisfaction of helping others, but he appreciated that those classes added some structure to his otherwise unscheduled days. Going to the senior center forced him to get out of his apartment and into the world at regular intervals.

It appears that giving back may have some value in clinical treatment for depression and anxiety, as well, because it fosters a connection between people and their communities.

Even if the moral/spiritual fulfillment, structure, and sense of connection leave you cold, volunteering can be beneficial for other reasons.

First, every nonprofit organization exists because someone loves it. You never know if that someone will be sitting across from you at an interview for a job you want. As a college student, I walked dogs for a popular animal shelter in Santa Barbara. When I interviewed for my first job as a new graduate, several prospective employers commented on how wonderful it was that I had volunteered for that organization.

Second, if you are unemployed, a volunteer role can give you the opportunity to learn something new—or at least continue to use marketable skills. When it comes to software and other things that take practice, if you don’t use the skills, you often lose them. If you are agreeing to give away time and expertise, most organizations will be happy to match you to a role that enables you to do what you need to do. When you encounter an organization that is totally inflexible, that’s probably not a place you want to invest a lot of time.

Third, volunteering gives you the opportunity to network. Many Fortune 500 companies allow employees to volunteer at local charities during work hours. If you do some research, you can probably find out if a company you are interested in tends to spend time at a nonprofit near you. That can provide you with the opportunity to connect with people who could become valuable contacts.

If you are interested in volunteering, start with causes and organizations that are important to you. Volunteer opportunities are also posted on VolunteerMatch and Idealist. While giving away time won’t fill a hole in the bank account, sometimes it can fill a hole in your life—and that can make a big difference.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Armstrong, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jonas

    Jonas

    April 11th, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    Seriously if you have never thought about finding a place where you can give a little bit of your extra time you will be so surprised it will make you feel going there and doing something good for others less fortunate than you in your community. I know that there can be times when you just want to sit around and veg and watch TV and that can be cool, but think about the people living near you who don’t have that luxury, and think about how good you may feel just going and helping them out every now and then. It can take away a little bit of your free time but what you get in return is so much more.

  • doug

    doug

    April 11th, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    Do you know how much of a schmuck I would feel like if I was actually trying to make professional contacts while doing volunteer work?

  • Angie

    Angie

    April 12th, 2014 at 7:42 AM

    I know that the only way to get some people interested in volunteering is by stressing the good things that it can do for them but for our kids I think that what we could also stress is just how much good they are doing for someone else. I think that this is the important thing that we should be treaching them from a very early age, that it is not always about how we can do thinngs that will advance ourselves but what we can do to help change the lives of others for the greater goal of common good.

  • clayton

    clayton

    April 12th, 2014 at 11:17 AM

    Ever since I was a young boy I always had this need to give back to others. Why?
    I am not sure, but I have always had the ability to see the wonderful things that I have in my own life and I guess that in mnay ways I just wanted to have the chance to share this with others. There will be all kinds of people that you meet along the way, some who will be so grateful for the extras that you are giving with your time and your gifts and there will be some who don’t seem to care at all. But this is not what it’s about, how they feel about what you are doing. Whether they realize it or not you are doing good and you are making a difference in someone’s life.
    You know how sometimes it takes us a while to “get it”? Well that might be the cases in some of their lives too but that is no reason why you have to stop. Give and give and you will make a difference.

  • Amy Armstrong

    Amy Armstrong

    April 12th, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    Doug, you never know who you are going to meet or who is going to see what you put out there in any context. That said, volunteering is one of many ways to connect with others and help the community.

  • Amy Armstrong

    Amy Armstrong

    April 12th, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    @Jonas, I agree. It is very satisfying to be able to lend a helping hand.

  • Amy Armstrong

    Amy Armstrong

    April 12th, 2014 at 12:18 PM

    @Angie, I appreciate your concern about pointing out “payoffs” or incentives for volunteering. As I demonstrated through the examples I gave, most of us do it anyway without even realizing those volunteer hours could be helpful for our career development. A lot of people forget to put those projects/assignments on their resumes and they are missing a huge opportunity to get credit for some valuable work. I appreciate how much you value service to others and that it is important to you to pass that value on to the next generation.

  • Starr E

    Starr E

    April 14th, 2014 at 4:33 AM

    We give because we care and want to do for others. It makes us feel good about having the chance to share our own gifts and talents- that is the kind of life that I feel called to lead.

  • Schlep

    Schlep

    April 14th, 2014 at 5:45 PM

    It is most satisfying to help someone else. It can also help you develop new skills and get a reference for the younger people who may not have any.

    It is also a way to build up treasure in heaven for Christians.

  • rob

    rob

    April 15th, 2014 at 4:32 AM

    there are so many agencies out there… I don’t really have any one cause that hits me as being the most important to me right now…how do I find the one that best fits what I am looking for? Will most places let you come and take a look at what they are doing?

  • Amy Armstrong

    Amy Armstrong

    April 18th, 2014 at 4:18 PM

    @Rob, the majority of agencies out there are happy to have prospective volunteers come by and learn more before committing to volunteer. It’s important to remember that nonprofit agencies really do rely on volunteers to help get things done–it’s not all stuffing envelopes and doing grunt work nobody else wants to do. Volunteers often are the most important ambassadors and evangelists of a nonprofit. Consequently, they want you to be happy there and feel committed to their work. It’s a good idea to check the organization’s website. Most of them have a lot of information online about their work, mission, and volunteer opportunities. You can also check their status on the Better Business Bureau website to make sure they’re legit. It’s good to find out what hours they need volunteers, is training offered/required, do you need to have a clean background check to volunteer there, is there a minimum time commitment per month/year, etc.?

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