Another article covering the management of volunteers

back for more knowledge

Defining volunteering

Blog PostNew!

Written by John Berry on 15th April 2024.0

4 min read

Youth tim-mossholder-hOF1bWoet Q-unsplashIn my research, writing, and experience of volunteering, there is one recurring difficulty – agreeing what a volunteer is. Since volunteering is often contrasted with employment, there must be some statement of what’s similar, and what’s different. But it goes further than that. Here are some of my conclusions in defining volunteering.


Volunteer work is work. In physics, work is the energy transferred to something by the application of a force applied over a displacement or distance. The allegory is sound. A volunteer gives their energy to an organisation by turning up and doing things. They move things, whether a mountain path, a group of youths, or some old folk enjoying one another’s company. There’s always movement – hopefully movement as improvement. One definition has it that volunteering is changing society one little bit at a time – and that’s movement. It might be fun, but it is work, and it’s important to recognise that when it comes to managing volunteers.

Volunteer work is also a leisure activity.


One common element in defining volunteering is that the volunteer gets no financial remuneration. That’s a simplified definition since there is a clear exchange going on, albeit non-monetary. The volunteer does not lend their effort for no reward. Volunteering is a two-way process. Typically, the reward is satisfaction of the volunteer’s needs.

One common model for the understanding of human needs is that after Alderfer.

People have core needs of existence, growth, and relatedness. Volunteers will strive to satisfy their needs through engagement with many environments like work, family, and volunteering. Existence needs are less likely to be met through volunteering. But the needs for growth and relatedness are central to the reasons why people volunteer. And it’s those that form the basis of the exchange – effort in return for needs satisfaction.

So, the lack of financial remuneration is an important differentiator from employment. But volunteering is never without reward.


Volunteering inevitably involves personal and group organisation to get stuff done. There are always intended beneficiaries for whom that stuff is important. The activities done are impactful, and that this impact is one of the measures of volunteering. Volunteering typically contributes to society, and the organisation through which the volunteer acts is the civil society organisation.

Free will

To differentiate volunteering from any sort of coercion, debt, or mandate, we need to state that volunteering is a free choice. An order to undertake community service when a person is found guilty by a court of some offence against society would not be free choice. It might be unpaid, but it would not be volunteering. A volunteer has a choice, of free will, as to whether they get involved. This free will also extends to when and how the volunteer engages.

This idea of free will is tempered when the volunteer makes a commitment to be involved at a particular time and place. And they may be under social pressure to act. In either case, it’s then a moot point as to how much free will they really do have. But this apart, volunteering stands separate from other forms of effort provision where the person is under an obligation, order, or financial reward.


Finally, we need to include something about the value of the volunteer’s effort to the civil society organisation. A majority of CSOs rely heavily on volunteer effort. The services and activities could indeed be done by employees, but the financial viability of the venture would be challenged. CSOs fundamentally rely on volunteers. Without them, beneficiaries would not be served. Volunteer effort is highly valuable to both organisation and beneficiaries, and hence highly valuable to the manager.

Defining volunteering

  • Volunteering can therefore be defined as the provision of effort and engagement in activities, for the benefit of others, and without financial remuneration.
  • But there is exchange - the volunteer does not lend their effort for no reward.
  • In volunteering, the volunteer has a free choice to get involved or not.
  • The effort is provided by the volunteer when it suits them, and that effort is impactful.
  • And without the volunteer’s involvement, the venture in which they participate would fail.

So, there you have it. Volunteering in a nutshell!