Volunteering contributes more than $200 billion to the Australian economy annually, with unpaid voluntary work through an organisation amounting to 489.5 million hours in 2020, according to the latest General Social Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Dr Darja Kragt is a Lecturer in the School of Psychological Science at the University of Western Australia and her research interests include volunteering and how volunteering identity changes over time. According to Kragt, research shows that people are motivated to volunteer by a sense of wanting to be involved in their local communities.
‘The majority of people will say that they volunteer because they just want to be involved and they want to give back to their community,’ she tells Wellbeing by Teacher. ‘That is a really strong driver or a really strong motivator.’
Others may volunteer because they are seeking professional experience, or looking to develop a particular skillset, with the hope of advancing their careers or opening up new employment opportunities. Parents are often called on to volunteer at their child’s school or sporting events, while others may choose to volunteer because they’re asked to by a friend or family member.
‘Your family member or your friend is already a volunteer and you decide to join them in volunteering because it’s fun to do something together,’ Kragt adds. ‘There are many different reasons for why people choose volunteering.’
Common types of volunteering
The most common types of organisations for which people volunteered in 2020 were those relating to sport and physical recreation (31 per cent), religious groups (23 per cent) and education and training (19 per cent).
Of those who provided unpaid work or support to non-household members, the most common types of volunteering provided were 'Providing any emotional support' (54 per cent), 'Providing transport or running errands' (38 per cent) and 'Domestic work, home maintenance or gardening' (37 per cent).
Kragt says that the State Emergency Service (SES) and broader emergency services are popular ways that Australians choose to volunteer. This includes firefighting and first aid volunteering. Cause-driven organisations like the Salvation Army or the Cancer Council are also popular, Kragt says.
‘A lot of this volunteering happens through what we call formal, large organisations that are dedicated to providing services, primarily through volunteers. But there are also smaller, local initiatives and groups that help people too. The options are limitless. You’ll always find something that aligns with your interests but also aligns with what you want to do and how much time you have to give,’ she says.
Volunteering can be a way of expressing one’s individuality and it can provide a person with a sense of identity. ‘We know that for people who volunteer, it’s part of their self and part of their identity and becomes really important, especially over time,’ Kragt says. ‘What that means is they really value their role in society as a volunteer, they see a lot of value in that for themselves and for others, and that’s really, really important to them. That’s why we will see a lot of people who will continuously volunteer over a very long time.’
In organisations where leaders themselves are volunteers, this can be even more pronounced. ‘We’ve done specific research with emergency services volunteers (primarily firefighting and SES) and some of the group leaders in those services will spend anywhere between 20-50 hours a week on volunteering, on top of their jobs and family and everything else,’ Kragt says.
‘They are people who are employed and have a family and then, somehow, they will find the time every week to do this volunteering service, but also do their administrative work and running the training sessions and all of that. It’s amazing dedication to the cause.’
Volunteering and mental health
Just a few hours of volunteering can improve your mood and outlook, while regular volunteering is associated with better overall mental health (Health Direct, 2019). Kragt agrees that research clearly shows the strong link between volunteering and mental health benefits.
‘We’ve seen that primarily driven by the fact that volunteering is an opportunity for social engagement,’ she says. ‘People are social beings and they like to be with other people and with volunteering, that sense of wellbeing comes from being connected to others for a very specific purpose. It’s a meaningful, purposeful activity that you’re also sharing with others.’
Kragt says there have been many studies (Kragt & Holtrop, 2019) that show people who volunteer report higher wellbeing outcomes compared to non-volunteers. This is across the board, independent of age or even the type of volunteering being done.
‘Across the board, but particularly for older adults, volunteering seems to have really protective benefits in terms of wellbeing and mental health,’ she says.
Kragt says that volunteering helps people to meet three psychological needs: social connection, autonomy and a sense of meaning. ‘We all have these needs and we all basically seek to satisfy these needs through our lives and the activities that we engage in. Volunteering is particularly good at giving us a way to satisfy these three psychological needs,’ she adds.
Social connection is achieved by working with others to achieve a common goal, while also at the same time forming friendships and having the opportunity to share experiences with others in your community.
Autonomy is the sense of being able to determine what you want to do. Kragt says that unlike paid work or employment, volunteering offers you the opportunity to choose, not only the type of organisation, but your role in the organisation as well. It can also mean that you’re not passively following the directions of others, but rather having a say and shaping the activities taking place.
‘With volunteering, because there are so many opportunities, you can actually choose something that’s really important to you and aligns with your interests and that gives you a sense of autonomy over that choice,’ she says.
Volunteering can also give you a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. Kragt says that it is often something people do for themselves and it proves to be a great outlet.
Kragt says the research is clear that volunteering has a positive impact on a person’s health and wellbeing.
‘Volunteers are happier, they have higher satisfaction with their lives, they feel more secure in their social relationships, they perceive that their life is meaningful and purposeful, and volunteering is also a source of pride and satisfaction for a lot of people,’ she says.
For anyone considering volunteering in their local community, Kragt says it’s important to seek out opportunities that are personally meaningful and align with your interests. It’s also important to make sure that it doesn’t become too demanding on your time.
‘There are so many opportunities – you have to do your research on what’s available in your area and really investigate and find something that is a really good match, and then it’s going to be a really meaningful and fulfilling activity.’
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2021). General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia. Accessed October 2021 https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/general-social-survey-summary-results-australia/2020#
Health Direct. (2019). Benefits of volunteering. Australian Government. Accessed October 2021 https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/benefits-of-volunteering
Kragt, D., & Holtrop, D. (2019). Volunteering research in Australia: A narrative review. Australian Journal of Psychology, 71(4), 342-360.
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