18 June 2010

American Volunteerism Series: Volunteering

The American Volunteerism Series sets out to describe and understand the ways and the motivations for volunteers in America.  This will remain American-centric because of not wanting to generalize about other Western nations that I do not have direct experience.  Comments and additions are welcome.  I will make updates to posts based on comments.

In the first part of the series, I will examine the ways that Americans volunteer.  The goal will be to identify the definition of what a volunteer is and then list and describe the ways that this definition is met.

What is a volunteer?

The OED defines a volunteer as “1 a person who freely offers to do something. 2 a person who works for an organization without being paid.”  They include military in the definition but I have excluded that because, to me, being paid to fight negates the second and very important part of the definition.  That is not to lessen the ‘service’ of a person in the military, but to consider it in a different category.

I would also include an addendum to the definition the idea of doing something to help another person.  The word help is a crucial one and will feature later when considering motivations and attitudes.  To keep with the definitions, it is important to at least include the definition since I have included it as a part of my definition for volunteer.  Help is to “1 make it easier for (someone) to do something. 2 improve (a situation or problem).”

So a definition that combines the two would read that a volunteer is a person who freely offers to make it easier for someone to do something or to improve a situation or problem for a person, group, or organization.  I will use that to determine what kind of volunteering Americans do.

What kids of volunteering are there?

  1. Domestic
    1. Community Development
    2. Mandatory
    3. Fundraiser/Charity
    4. Service Trip
    5. Long Term/Full Time
    6. Teaching
    7. Health
    8. Faith Based
  2. International
    1. Tourism
    2. Teaching
    3. Service Trip
    4. Long Term/Full Time
    5. Health
    6. Faith Based


According to Volunteering in America, based on data from 2007 to 2009 Americans volunteered at the following rates:

  • 62.0 million volunteers
  • 26.5% of residents volunteer
  • 8.1 billion hours of service
  • 34.4 hours per resident

The service they do is broken down by:

and they volunteer in:

The breakdowns continue on the site and it is worth playing around with a bit to see how different regions, states and groups volunteer.  I have broken down the categories of domestic volunteering in a slightly different way that includes what is shown but also makes it more streamlined.  Some will have crossover, but I want to highlight some of the main ways a person volunteers.

Community Development

Community Development is any sort of volunteering that is done to improve the town or area in which a person lives.  This includes things like park clean ups and soup kitchens.  Generally, community development projects are organized for the betterment of the community at large and asks for members to give some time to fix the identified problem.  Projects can be ongoing like a soup kitchen or can be a one-off like cleaning up the local baseball fields before Little League begins.


Some volunteering is not done by choice and should be noted.  Within the mandatory volunteering falls court appointed community service, church or group mandated and school mandated.  As a student, I was required to perform 8 hours of community service each year.  I had to bring a sheet that was to be signed by a supervisor who ensured that I was going the required service.  Incentives were given , such as getting an award for exceeding 100 hours (check).  However, it was also a requirement as a part of moving from one grade to the next.  I also had a similar experience during my Catholic Confirmation.  I was required to fulfill a certain amount of hours of community service in a specific time frame.  While court appointed is a punishment, it is really not all that different.  Community service is required in order to fulfill a requirement set by someone in order to move on.


Volunteering that is done with the purpose of attempting to raise money for a cause, individual or organization.  This includes traditional ways of asking for money through phone calls, letters, booths, door to door visits, etc.  Also, it includes events where a person raises money by competing a task and raises money through sponsorship for his or her participation.  In other words, raising money by doing something like running a marathon, walking a distance, or dancing for a specific time.

Service Trip

Traveling for a week or so to do a volunteering project.  One of the big guys in this industry is Habitat for Humanity.  They are a popular choice for colleges, but there are many others that do similar type work.  The idea is to get a group of people who want to go to a new place and do a service project over a short period of time.  Recently, New Orleans has been the place to go because of Katrina.  With rebuilding continuing there is a constant flow of volunteers to the region.

Long Term/Full Time

I define this as doing a year of volunteering.  This means joining AmeriCorps, NCCC, JVC, Vista, Augustinian Volunteers and so on.  Programs like Teach for America do not count because they provide a full salary for their teachers.  Other programs will offer a living stipend that I consider to allow it to be considered volunteering because no financial gain can be made.  There are some AmeriCorps programs that do offer a full salary and they do not qualify for the same reasons as TFA.


Individuals who will volunteer in a setting where by they are teaching or tutoring adults and/or children.  This includes after school tutoring, adult ed programs, volunteer teachers and so on.  The main purpose is to provide educational assistance to a person or people who cannot otherwise access what is determined to be adequate assistance.


As the name states, this is related to the health field.  This can include volunteers at a blood drive and doctors who do mobile clinics for free.  The general goal of health related volunteering is to bring cheap or free health care to areas in the United States where people could not otherwise afford or access quality care.

Faith Based

Groups organized based around a shared faith or faith community.  Generally put together by churches to do service projects and trips.  While they fall under many of the above categories, they are notable  later when considering motivations and impact.



According to the Brookings institute, 46,000 Americans participated in volunteer abroad programs in 2005 (if anyone comes across a more recent study it would be greatly appreciated).  Of that number 7,600 were Peace Corps members. The following table comes from the Brookings study (note: faith based programs meant to primarily proselytize are not included):

Estimated Number of Programs and Volunteers in 2005 
Peace Corps  7,800
Generalist Programs  18,700
Professional Programs  9,600
Corporate Programs 2,200
Faith-Based Programs 8,000
Total 46,300

I had a category called ‘immersion’ as a part of the International side but I realized that immersion programs do not involve volunteering.  Programs like study abroad and immersion trips are mindful of volunteering and do not include it as part of their programs.  While notable, and something that will be expanded upon later, it does not fall under the definition of volunteering since the entire experience is aimed at personal learning and understanding.

Tourism/Service Trip

Voluntourism is a more appropriate term.  It is traveling to a country or group of countries to tour an area, vacation, and/or volunteer.  There is no set standard here but it may include any of the previous activities.  A shorter trip, the idea is generally more similar to domestic programs like habitat for humanity.  Volunteers work on an ongoing project that is continued by other volunteer groups prior to and after.  I have included ‘service trip’ in this grouping because it is another name for the same thing.  In addition, some international services trips will include a period of pure tourism in the time spent abroad.


Similar to domestic teaching but the difference being that international teachers generally are used to teach their native language.  What is thought is that English speakers make good teachers of English because it is what they speak.  You can go to sub-Saharan Africa to do it or to Seoul, South Korea.  Some nations (such as Kenya) prohibit paid foreign teachers, so volunteering is the only option if a school wants an American English teacher.

Long Term/Full Time

Volunteers who work for an organization or community (Peace Corps) for at least a year.  Time is not a hard standard, but have to have a cut off somewhere and a year seems to be a good benchmark.  These volunteers will assume permanent roles as a part of the staff for a school or INGO.  Some will pay a small fee, a full fee, independently fund or receive a small living stipend (Peace Corps).


International volunteering at a hospital, clinic, school, or community in order to provide health services that cannot be accessed by individuals or a community.

Faith Based

Volunteering organized around or based in faith.  This includes actively looking to convert people in a community to a specific religion.  All of the above can fit under this category, but this speaks more towards motivation than to type.


Next Week….

I will look at what motivates people to volunteer.  The purpose of today was to set out definitions for what kinds of volunteering exists.  Motivations are an important part of volunteering and something that cannot be ignored.  The motivation aspect will be split over the next to weeks.  Next week I will try to list different motivations for volunteering and the following week will go further into the motivations and evaluate how they can affect decisions when determining when, where and how a person volunteers.