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Volunteerism refers to a broad range of activities that benefit another person, group, or cause and that are carried out by individuals by their own choice and without pay. Individuals engaged in volunteerism are referred to as volunteers. Examples of volunteerism include serving on the board of a museum, organizing a protest meeting against environmental pollution, preparing food in a soup kitchen, caring for the elderly in a nursing home, looking after pets or mail for a neighbor, and the donation of blood at a blood center. However, also more controversial activities like distributing flyers for an extremist political party and providing shelter to illegal immigrants may qualify as examples of volunteerism.
A common distinction is made between formal and informal volunteerism. Formal volunteerism is carried out in an organization, usually a nonprofit organization. Informal volunteerism is not carried out in an organization and usually benefits specific individuals or groups with whom the volunteer has personal connections. Informal volunteerism is also called social support or helping behavior. Informal volunteerism that benefits colleagues or one’s employer is called organizational citizenship behavior.
In sociology and political science volunteerism is considered a form of civic engagement and an expression of cohesion or social capital in society (Putnam 2000). Formal volunteerism has received more attention in these disciplines than informal volunteerism, although the two are related empirically (Wilson and Musick 1997). The focus on formal volunteerism is apparent in the frequent measurement of engagement in voluntary associations in general household surveys. These surveys contain lists of types of organizations, for each of which the respondent answers to what extent he or she is engaged in the organization (not engaged, passive member, active member, volunteer). In some household surveys respondents report the frequency of informal helping behaviors. Informal volunteerism is commonly measured in questionnaires on social support networks. Respondents indicate whether they have people (“alters”) available to them with whom they discuss important matters (emotional support) or who can assist them in practical matters like small repairs (practical support).
Volunteerism is more common among married persons, whites, the middle-aged and elderly, the higher educated, more frequent church attendees, rural residents, children of volunteers, and extraverted persons (Bekkers 2005, 2007; Penner et al. 2005; Putnam 2000; Wilson 2000). Differences between whites and blacks differ from study to study (contrasting findings in Wilson and Musick 1997 and Carson 1987). Among other things, volunteerism is more common among the higher educated because they have more civic skills, more knowledge, and a stronger feeling of efficacy (Brady et al. 1995; Nie et al. 1996). Individuals with more civic skills and knowledge are more able to understand arguments, to express their views, and to convince others. These are useful qualities that lower the cost and increase the expected benefit of volunteerism. Individuals with a stronger feeling of efficacy are more likely to think their volunteerism makes a difference for the beneficiary of their volunteerism, which increases its expected benefit. Formal volunteerism in turn enhances civic skills, knowledge, and self-efficacy. Beyond paid work, voluntary associations are an important context in which people gain experience in organizing meetings, learn to understand others, and gain confidence in their abilities.
Volunteerism is also linked with a variety of other benefits. Volunteers are known to live longer and to be healthier in old age than nonvolunteers. In addition volunteerism contributes to mental health and may contribute to success in paid labor in the long run (Penner et al. 2005; Wilson and Musick 2000). At the macro level voluntary associations strengthen civil society and democracy (Putnam 2000).
Because of these benefits, schools increasingly include service learning and community service programs in their curricula. Completing a service learning program, which itself is usually not a form of volunteerism because it is obligatory, may promote civic skills and volunteerism in the future, depending on several characteristics of the program. More beneficial programs have a moderate level of freedom for pupils in selecting service activities, require a higher level of reflection from pupils, and are supervised by more enthusiastic teachers (Metz and Youniss 2005). Voluntary programs do not have more beneficial effects than required programs (Schmidt et al. 2006). Voluntary programs draw an audience that consists mostly of young people with a social background that facilitates volunteerism: parents volunteer themselves, are religious, and have higher socioeconomic status (Metz and Youniss 2005). Given that required service learning programs also have beneficial effects among youths from less-favorable backgrounds and perhaps even more so than among youths from advantageous backgrounds, required service learning programs may reduce social inequality in volunteerism and civic engagement in the long run.
- Bekkers, Rene. 2005. Participation in Voluntary Associations: Relations with Resources, Personality, and Political Values. Political Psychology 26: 439–454.
- Bekkers, Rene. 2007. Intergenerational Transmission of Volunteerism. Acta Sociologica 50 (2): 99–114.
- Brady, Henry E., Sidney Verba, and Kay Lehman Schlozman. 1995. Beyond SES: A Resource Model of Political Participation. American Political Science Review 89: 271–294.
- Carson, Emmett D. 1987. The Charitable Activities of Black Americans: A Portrait of Self-Help? Review of Black Political Economy 15 (3): 100–111.
- Metz, Edward C., and James Youniss. 2005. Longitudinal Gains in Civic Development through School-Based Required Service. Political Psychology 26 (3): 413–437.
- Nie, Norman H., Jane Junn, and Kenneth Stehlik-Barry. 1996. Education and Democratic Citizenship in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Penner, Louis A., John F. Dovidio, Jane A. Piliavin, and David A. Schroeder. 2005. Prosocial Behavior: Multilevel Perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology 56: 365–392.
- Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Schmidt, Jennifer A., Lee Shumow, and Hayal Kackar. 2006.
- Adolescents’ Participation in Service Activities and Its Impact on Academic, Behavioral, and Civic Outcomes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 35 (2): 127–140.
- Wilson, John. 2000. Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 215–240.
- Wilson, John, and Marc A. Musick. 1997. Who Cares? Toward an Integrated Theory of Volunteer Work. American Sociological Review 62: 694–713.
- Wilson, John, and Marc A. Musick. 2000. The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer. Law and Contemporary Problems 62: 141–168.
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