Table of Contents

Positive Impacts of Volunteerism
Detrimental Impacts of Mandatory Volunteerism
Effects of Volunteerism on the Health of Volunteers
The President’s View on Volunteerism
A Local Student’s Outlook on Volunteerism

Volunteerism: The Advantages and Disadvantages

Volunteerism exists in many different forms and can work as a positive influence, both on the community and on the volunteer. The primary goal of volunteering is to provide substantial benefits to communities through complementary service. Communities are greatly impacted by the willingness of volunteers, whether that volunteerism is in response to a natural disaster, for a specific event, or on a regular basis as a means of helping the community in areas of ongoing need. Simultaneously, the volunteer enjoys the satisfaction of effective service and perhaps of acquiring new skills and contacts. The positive aspects of volunteerism are so visible and myriad that no negative effects might spring to mind, especially if it is considered obvious that a volunteer can withdraw his service if the experience becomes negative. Indeed, the negative effects of volunteering appear to arise mainly from situations involving mandatory volunteerism, which is volunteerism done to fulfill the requirements of an outside entity, usually an educational system. In a mandatory volunteerism situation, the volunteer may continue in service which negatively affects him in some way because withdrawal of his service is too costly an option.

Positive Impacts of Volunteerism

Not only does the community benefit from volunteerism, but the volunteer benefits as well. In their scholarly journal, “The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer,” John Wilson, Professor of Sociology at Duke University, and Marc Musick, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas in Austin, state as much:“. . . research on the effects of volunteering leaves little doubt that there are individual benefits to be derived from doing volunteer work that reach far beyond the volunteer act itself and may linger long after the volunteer role is relinquished.” Wilson and Musick conclude that the primary benefit to volunteers lies in the intrinsic reward of a sense of satisfaction gained in the realization that through their efforts, the community is a better place (Wilson and Musick).

Volunteerism also can be a means by which participants acquire new skills or even positively change their social behavior. Research done by the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth showed that volunteerism was effective in keeping students from participating in delinquent activities, if their volunteer work was enjoyable to them and gave them new skills (Wilson and Musick).

Because of these perceived benefits, colleges are increasingly interested in volunteerism among their students and potential enrollees, according to Catherine Moore, writer for the Gazette-Mail“A Look at the Life and Times of Some Teen-Age Volunteers.” Moore states, “Volunteerism has become something of a buzzword among the nation's top colleges, so it's no wonder that lately teens have become more interested in racking up community service hours.” Students realize that having served their communities as volunteers may help them gain college admission or scholarships (Moore).

In some areas of the United States, volunteerism is becoming mandatory for students to graduate high school. According to Mark Parenti, a regular contributor to Reason Magazine, one primary goal of that requirement is to train students to be altruistic activists in the community. Educators espousing this objective feel they are teaching students the values of citizenship along with the responsibility individuals have to contribute their services to their communities. Students are instructed to notice community problems, analyze them, and think of ways to resolve them, oftentimes through political appeals, local protests, or informative tracts. This model of education intends to raise a generation of unselfish, responsible, and active citizens who are committed to their communities (Parenti).

Detrimental Impacts of Mandatory Volunteerism

Theoretically, volunteering is done through the willingness of individuals; in some cases, however, volunteers commit to volunteering to fulfill the requirements of a third party. In such cases particularly, though not exclusively, volunteer work can have a negative impact on volunteers.

The negative effect of compulsory volunteerism varies according to each situation. For example, an individual may already have long workdays at his paid employment, making it difficult for him to find time or energy to complete his mandatory volunteer hours. Another individual may carry numerous responsibilities at home, and having to fulfill community service hours is an additional strain on an already overburdened schedule, rather than an enjoyable and enlightening experience. Depending on circumstance, forced volunteering can adversely affect health, dispel motivation, and diminish productivity by causing exhaustion.

Some school districts requiring volunteerism experience resistance from parents and students who feel that mandatory volunteerism may consume an inordinate amount of the volunteer’s time, according to Parenti. These parents and students feel that since they know the demands of school, employment, and home in their respective lives, they are best able to determine whether or not they can volunteer.Also of concern to this group is that, instead of doing something beneficial for the community or instructive to themselves, mandatory volunteers often spend their volunteer hours doing busywork or petty, insignificant jobs (Parenti). John Cloud, staff writer for Time magazine, reiterates this in his article entitled “Involuntary Volunteers.” Cloud states that the important goal of students learning from their personal service was less focused upon by the students than was the goal of completing the amount of hours required. This general attitude makes some students dislike participating in volunteer work because their supposed benevolence seems primarily motivated by self-interest and their work of little value to the community (Cloud). Wilson and Musick summarize this concern: “Indeed, there are justifiable fears that attaching rewards to altruism will undermine motivation and distort values. It is not likely, then, that this information on benefits can be used productively as a recruitment tool or means of mobilizing volunteer effort. Indeed,. . . it might be unwise because the benefits are contingent on the volunteer being intrinsically motivated” (Wilson and Musick).

Effects of Volunteerism on the Health of Volunteers

Various studies have shown that volunteering can be both healthy and unhealthy. Positive or negative effects on volunteers are generally determined by work situations or the personal outlooks of the volunteers. Musick, along with Joongbaeck Kim, also an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas in Austin, conduct research of volunteerism in which they categorize volunteers into two different types of people: “others-awarding” and “self-awarding.” They define “others-awarding” as those altruistic volunteers who earnestly desire the community to benefit from their services, while the term “self-awarding” is applied to those who volunteer primarily for their own benefit, whatever that may be. Kim and Musick’s research shows that the mindset of the volunteer entirely determines the gratification and output of the volunteering experience.

Volunteers who possess unselfish attributes are often affected by volunteer work in positive manners, say Kim and Musick. Voluntary labor aids the health of “others-awarding” volunteers in that it lessens some symptoms of depression; the volunteer often attains a gratifying sense of accomplishment, social attachment, and self-regard. Indeed, Kim and Musick record that volunteers show fewer symptoms of depression than people who do not participate in volunteerism. Their studies indicate that “others-rewarding” types possess fewer symptoms of depression than “self-rewarding” types. In fact, the “self-rewarding” volunteers did not display any particular increases or decreases in levels of depression. Rather, volunteering had a neutral or imperceptible effect on those who were self-concerned (Kim and Musick).

However, evidence exists that volunteering can have negative effects on volunteers under particular conditions. The BBC News Online article “Volunteering Bad for the Health” reports on research published by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. This research includes quotes from Celia Richardson, Director of Communications and Fundraising at the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Foundation, suggesting that volunteers often do not receive the attention and concern typically granted in non-volunteer workplaces. Richardson states that a volunteer’s health can be seriously affected if the volunteer is placed in uncomfortable or difficult circumstances:

If people are feeling over-stretched or are witnessing depressing and difficult situations they aren’t trained to deal with–and if they aren’t offered appropriate protection or counseling–then it is not difficult to imagine they could feel there are negative health consequences attached to volunteering (Celia Richardson qtd. in “Volunteering ‘Bad for the Health’”).

Volunteers deserve proper “protection” and “counseling” if required to go into discomfiting situations. Furthermore, volunteer workplace operations should take responsibility to ensure that their volunteers are safe from physical or psychological harm (“Volunteering Bad for the Health”).

The President’s View on Volunteerism

In her article “Community-Service Opportunities Expanded,” author Mary-Ann Zehr writes that President Barack Obama recently signed legislation supporting the cause of volunteerism. Obama has decided to help sustain preexisting programs that aid the community and establish additional programs with the same humanitarian purposes. Obama supplies an explanatory statement concerning his recent actions in favor of volunteerism: “It is just the beginning of a sustained, collaborative, and focused effort to involve our greatest resource—our citizens—in the work of remaking this nation” (qtd. In Zehr). Obama wishes to arouse American citizens to become vigorous volunteers for the community. Also, he desires to reach youth who are no longer in school or are not active in the community (Zehr).

Zehr goes on to say that the federal government will provide funding for a new program, named Summer Service. The program grants awards to young people who complete a minimum of one-hundred hours of voluntary service over the summer. Payments of $500.00 to be put toward college-related expenses are the largest prizes for individuals successfully participating in Summer Service. These rewards are intended to attract adolescents into volunteering and thereby to benefit both the community and the volunteer (Zehr).

President Obama’s actions have been generally well received and supported, Zehr indicates, though opposition exists. People like to hear that youths are being encouraged to involve themselves in the community. The programs promote leadership and opportunities to learn skills needed in addressing and correcting communal issues. But concern has been expressed by some that helping the community is emphasized too much while the learning aspect of service is neglected (Zehr).

Zehr mentions a suggestion which has been presented to improve Obama’s plan: Volunteering youths would be placed in environments that teach them helpful skills and do not merely exploit their willingness to labor. Part of this suggestion includes educating adults in charge of volunteers so that they emphasize the full purpose of volunteering, which is both to serve and to gain skills. Otherwise, students may merely be taken advantage of without gaining anything truly valuable from their own service (Zehr).

A Local Student’s Outlook on Volunteerism

Javan Goulbourne, a local student attending Brevard Community College in Palm Bay, Florida, has served his community during the past nine years by regularly volunteering at the local public library. Goulbourne feels he has learned many valuable life skills through volunteering at the library. He believes that his service taught him respect for authorities and hierarchies, strengthened his communicational skills through interaction with patrons, and trained him to responsibly manage his time.

Goulbourne explained that he has, until currently, done volunteering at his own will and on his own time. Now, however, the community college at which he is enrolled has made volunteering mandatory in order to pass some classes. Presently, two of Goulbourne’s classes include Service Learning for class completion, requiring him to finish at least forty hours of volunteer work over the course of one semester.

Based on his personal experience and observation, Goulbourne disagrees with the concept of mandatory volunteerism. “I don’t like being required to volunteer, such as for Service Learning. I find that when I am required to volunteer, I don’t feel that I am giving for the right reasons. To me, it’s equivalent to cheating on a test,” Goulbourne comments. He also feels his mandatory volunteering has overtaxed his schedule and his health. “Basically, my day involves waking up, going to school, work, and volunteering, sleeping, and repeat all over again,” he states, adding that he often is forced to neglect his studies in order to complete mandatory volunteer hours.


Though the benefits of volunteer work seem obvious and uncontestable, certain conditions must be met for its impact to be completely positive. First, the volunteer’s physical and psychological well-being should be safeguarded as much as possible, at a level similar to that of a workplace of paid employees, so that the volunteer is respected and is not abused. Secondly, the volunteer’s labor should consist of something she or he perceives as a valuable contribution and not simply busywork or meaningless activity, so that the volunteer experiences a sense of satisfaction. Lastly, the volunteer’s work should at least occasionally involve the learning of new skills, so that both the community and the volunteer benefit.

As for whether these conditions can be met when volunteerism is mandatory, debate continues. Volunteerism has its pros and cons, as does everything. Do the benefits of volunteerism outweigh its disadvantages? No universal answer has been agreed upon. In truth, it is an interminable debate based upon opinion and perspective.

Works Cited

Cloud, John. "Involuntary Volunteers." Time 150. 23 (1997): 76. Military and Government Collection. Web. 12 Oct. 2009.

Goulbourne, Javan. Personal interview. 12 Oct. 2009.

Kim, Joongbaeck and Marc Musick. “Perceptions of Volunteering Efficacy and Their Effects on Mental Health” All Academic Research. All Academic. 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 19 Oct. 2009.

Moore, Catherine. “Doing the Right Thing.” Gazette-Mail 30 Jan. 2000: n. pag. SIRS Researcher. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

Parenti, Mark. "Lobbying School." Reason 25. (1994): 56-7. Readers Guide Full Text. Web. 7 Nov. 2009.

"Volunteering 'Bad for the Health'." BBC News. BBC. 14 May 2004. Web. 9 Oct. 2009.

Wilson, John and Marc Musick. “The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer.” Law And Contemporary Problems. N.p. 1999. Web. 25 Nov. 2009.

Zehr, Mary Ann. "Community-Service Opportunities Expanded." Education Week 28. 30 (2009): eight. Education Full Text. Web. 12 Oct. 2009.