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Volunteers assist survivors at the Houston Astrodome following Hurricane Katrina.
Three of the nearly 300 volunteers at the 2013 Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho.

Volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity and is intended to promote good or improve human quality of life. In return, this activity produces a feeling of self-worth and respect; however, there is no financial gain. Volunteering is also renowned for skill development, socialization, and fun. It is also intended to make contacts for possible employment. Many volunteers are specifically trained in the areas they work, such as medicine, education, or emergency rescue. Others serve on an as-needed basis, such as in response to a natural disaster.

Etymology & History

The verb volunteer was first recorded in 1755 from the noun, in C.1600, "one who offers himself for military service," by M.Fr. Voluntaire. In the non-military sense, the word was first recorded during the 1630s. The word volunteering has more recent usage—still predominantly military—coinciding with the word community service. In a military context, a volunteer army is a military body whose soldiers chose to enter service, as opposed to having been conscripted. Such volunteers do not work "for free" and are given regular pay.

If a student is engaged in some sort of volunteer work, taking a gap year after high school or during college is also one form of volunteering. Career break is also considered to be a form of volunteering, until involved in a voluntary work.

19th Century

Prior to the 19th century, few formal charitable organizations existed to assist people in need.

During this time, America experienced the Great Awakening. People became aware of the disadvantaged and realized the cause for the movement against slavery. Younger people started helping the needy in their communities. In 1851, the first YMCA in the United States was started, followed seven years later by the first YWCA. During the Civil War, women volunteered their time to sew supplies for the soldiers.

John F. Kennedy greets volunteers on August 28, 1961

Salvation Army is one of the oldest and largest organization working for disadvantaged people. Though it is a charity organization, it has organized a number of volunteering programs since its inception.

20th & 21st Century

In the first few decades of the 20th century, several volunteer organizations were founded, including the Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions club. The Great Depression saw one of the first large-scale, nationwide efforts to coordinate volunteering for a specific need. During World War II, thousands of volunteer offices supervised the volunteers who helped with the many needs of the military and the home front, including collecting supplies, entertaining soldiers on leave, and caring for the injured.

After World War II, the people shifted the focus of their altruistic passions to other areas, including helping the poor and volunteering overseas. A major development was the Peace Corps in 1960. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, volunteer opportunities started to expand and continued into the next few decades. The process for finding volunteer work became more formalized, with more volunteer centers forming and new ways to find work appearing on the World Wide Web.


Skills-based Volunteering

Skills-based volunteering is leveraging the specialized skills and talents of individuals to strengthen the infrastructure of nonprofits, helping them build and sustain their capacity to successfully achieve their missions. This is in contrast to traditional volunteering, where specific training is not required.

Volunteering in Developing Countries

Volunteering in Developing Countries refers to volunteering in needy communities in developing nations. Most of the volunteers from developed countries choose the third world as their volunteering destination, and spend their time working in resource poor schools, teaching, working in orphanages and so on. Nowadays, volunteering has also been termed as an international community service. An able volunteer will pledge their time to work in the international community for various development activities.

Virtual Volunteering

Also called e-volunteering or online volunteering, virtual volunteering is a term that describes a volunteer who completes tasks, in whole or in part, offsite from the organization being assisted. They use the Internet and a home, school, telecenter or work computer or other Internet-connected device, such as a PDAs or smartphone. Virtual volunteering is also known as cyber service, telementoring, and teletutoring, and various other names. Virtual volunteering is similar to telecommuting, except that instead of online employees who are paid, these are online volunteers who are not paid.


Micro-volunteering is an unpaid task that is operated via an internet-connected device and completed in small increments of time. It is distinct from virtual volunteering in that it typically does not require an application process or training period.

Environmental Volunteering

Environmental volunteering refers to volunteers who contribute towards environmental management or conservation. Volunteers conduct a range of activities including environmental monitoring, ecological restoration such as re-vegetation and weed removal, protecting endangered animals, and educating others about the natural environment.

Giant Panda Conservation program in Xi'an and Sichuan, China is a famous endangered animals protection program. Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries conservation program attracts huge foreign support and volunteers.

Volunteering in an Emergency

Volunteering often plays a pivotal role in the recovery effort following natural disasters, such as tsunamis, floods, droughts, and earthquakes. For example, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami attracted a large number of volunteers worldwide, deployed by non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and the UN.

Volunteering in Schools

Resource poor schools around the world rely on government support, or on efforts from volunteers and private donations, in order to run effectively. In some countries, whenever the economy is down, the need for volunteers and resources increases greatly. There are many opportunities available in the school system for volunteers to take advantage of. They can add an experience in their resume and learn foreign culture and language. There are not many requirements in order to become a volunteer in the school system. Whether one is a high school or TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) graduate or college student, most schools require just voluntary and selfless effort. Much like the benefits of any type of volunteering there are great rewards for the volunteer, student, and school.

Volunteering in schools can be an additional teaching guide for the students and help to fill the gap of local teachers. Cultural and language exchange during teaching and other school activities can be the most essential learning experience for both students and volunteers.

Corporate Volunteering

A majority of the companies at the Fortune 500 allow their employees to volunteer during work hours. These formalized Employee Volunteering Programs (EVPs), also called Employer Supported Volunteering, are regarded as a part of the companies' sustainability efforts and their social responsibility activities. About 40% of Fortune 500 companies provide monetary donations, also known as volunteer grants, to nonprofits as a way to recognize their employees who dedicate significant amounts of time to volunteering in the community.

According to information from VolunteerMatch, a service that provides Employee Volunteering Program solutions, the key drivers for companies that produce and manage EVPs are building brand awareness and affinity, strengthening trust and loyalty among consumers, enhancing corporate image and reputation, improving employee retention, increasing employee productivity and loyalty, and providing an effective vehicle to reach strategic goals.

Community Voluntary Work

Community volunteering refers to volunteers who work to improve community enhancement efforts in the area in which they live. Neighbourhood, church, and community groups play a key role in building strong cities from the neighborhoods up. Supporting these understaffed groups can enable them to succeed in a variety of areas, which connect social, environmental, and economic boundaries. Volunteers can conduct a wide range of activities. Some choose to support a variety of groups as a "volunteer broker."

International Workcamps

An International workcamp is an international voluntary project in which participants from different countries can meet, live, work, learn and exchange with local people concerning issues about environmental conservation, cultural heritage, social justice, rural and human development, etc. CCIVS, Group Work Foundation, Service Civil International (SCI) are few providing International workcamps

It can be divided into short term voluntary projects (STV) and long/middle term voluntary projects (LMTV). STV projects are International workcamps for less than 2 months, while LMTV projects are those lasting 2 months or more. The most common International workcamp lasts for two weeks with a group of 10-20 overseas and local workcamp participants.

Political View

Modern societies share a common value of people helping each other; not only do volunteer acts assist others, but they also benefit the volunteering individual on a personal level. Despite having similar objectives, tension can arise between volunteers and state-provided services. In order to curtail this tension, most countries develop policies and enact legislation to clarify the roles and relationships among governmental stakeholders and their voluntary counterparts; this regulation identifies and allocates the necessary legal, social, administrative, and financial support of each party. This is particularly necessary when some voluntary activities are seen as a challenge to the authority of the state, (e.g. on January 29, 2001, President Bush cautioned that volunteer groups should supplement—not replace—government agencies’ work. Volunteering that benefits the state but challenges paid counterparts angers labor unions that represent those who are paid for their volunteer work; this is particularly seen in combination departments, such as volunteer fire departments.

Difficulties in Cross-national Aid

Difficulties in this model of volunteering can arise when it is applied across national borders. The presence of volunteers who are sent from one state to another can be viewed as a breach of sovereignty and a lack of respect towards the national government of the proposed recipients. Thus, motivations are important when states negotiate offers to send aid and when these proposals are accepted, particularly if donors may postpone assistance or stop it altogether. Three types of conditionality have evolved:

  1. Financial accountability: Transparency in funding management to ensure that what is done by the volunteers is properly targeted
  2. Policy reform: Governmental request that developing countries adopt certain social, economic, or environmental policies; often, the most controversial relate to the privatization of services traditionally offered by the state
  3. Development objectives: Asking developing countries to adjust specific time-bound economic objectives

Some international volunteer organizations define their primary mission as being an altruistic one: to fight poverty and improve the living standards of people in the developing world, (e.g. Voluntary Services Overseas has almost 2,000 skilled professionals working as volunteers to pass on their expertise to local people so that their skills remain long after they return home). When these organizations work in partnership with governments, the results can be impressive. However, when other organizations or individual First World governments support the work of volunteer groups, there can be questions as to whether their real motives are poverty alleviation. Instead, a focus on creating wealth for some of the poor or developing policies intended to benefit the donor states is sometimes reported. Many low-income countries’ economies suffer from industrialization without prosperity and investment without growth. One reason for this is that development assistance guides many Third World governments to pursue development policies that have been wasteful, ill-conceived, or unproductive; some of these policies have been so destructive that the economies could not have been sustained without outside support.

Indeed, some of the offers of aid have distorted the general spirit of volunteering, treating local voluntary action as contributions in kind, (i.e. existing conditions requiring the modification of local people’s behaviour in order for them to earn the right to donors’ charity). This can be seen as patronizing and offensive to the recipients because the aid expressly serves the policy aims of the donors rather than the needs of the recipients.


In the 1960s, Ivan Illich offered an analysis of the role of American volunteers in Mexico in his speech entitled, "To Hell With Good Intentions". His concerns, along with those of critics such as Paulo Freire and Edward Said, revolve around the notion of altruism as an extension of Christian missionary ideology. In addition, he mentions the sense of responsibility/ obligation as a factor, which drives the concept of noblesse oblige—first developed by the French aristocracy as a moral duty derived from their wealth. Simply stated, these apprehensions propose the extension of power and authority over indigenous cultures around the world. Recent critiques of volunteering come from Westmier and Kahn (1996) and bell hooks (née Gloria Watkins) (2004). Also, Georgeou (2012) has critiqued the impact of neoliberalism on international aid volunteering.

The field of medical tourism (referring to volunteers who travel overseas to deliver medical care) has recently attracted negative criticism when compared to the alternative notion of sustainable capacities; meaning work done in the context of long-term, locally-run and foreign-supported infrastructures. A preponderance of this criticism appears largely in the scientific and peer-reviewed literature. Recently, media outlets with more general readerships have published such criticisms as well.

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