Unpaid Labor, On Purpose: Why We Volunteer

At the San Francisco literacy center where I work, I see more than 40 volunteers every week. They drive an hour from Intel or ride the bus from high school to read with a kid for at least 45 minutes for $0. Some are required to volunteer as part of a class, but most are there of their own free will. Why do they do it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to go all Ayn Rand and suggest that everyone should have a selfish motive for their actions. But I do think the choice to volunteer is a curious one, and that a mix of intentions drive otherwise practical people to work for free.

For one thing, our digital lives rarely give us the chance to talk one-on-one, face-to-face with a human—let alone a moldable, eager child—and build a relationship from scratch. For another, savvy professionals know that volunteering looks good, especially in these lean times. Volunteers are 27 percent likelier to find a job after being unemployed than those who simply plop in front of job websites, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Aside from any logical reasons to volunteer, my job has shown me that the quiet pleasures win. We rarely get the type of reverence a 10-year-old kid gives to an adult. Reading for an hour a week might be the simplest way to become one person’s idol.

Take Matt Ryan and David. Matt, a volunteer at my literacy center and a University of San Francisco business major, already wears blazers and polos in daily life. His professionalism has wooed David, a distractible third grader who struggles with reading. David has gifted Mark a long paper caterpillar and a crayoned drawing of Matt scuba diving with a turtle. (This last gift because David once asked Matt, “Have you ever gone underwater and did you touch anything there?” Yes, Matt said, and he had touched a turtle). Not only that, but David now looks forward to reading, when before he whined about it. David thought Matt was absent one day, and he threw himself to the ground to fake sob.

Beyond collecting volunteer hours for school, Matt said he wants to tutor because he cares about public service. “People say I always put others’ needs in front of my own.” He wants to start a bus company in Marin, just north of San Francisco, to make up for the lack of public transportation there.

Then there are working professional tutors like Charlie Mintz. For his first day of training, Charlie ambled over to Cesar Chavez Elementary School with a Joy Division T-shirt and a basketball under his arm. His first few sessions, he stood around shyly, awaiting my instructions. But after he sat down with his student, he transformed into a charismatic raconteur. Charlie works as a senior producer with the Stanford Storytelling Project, and he rivets third grader Ximena with his smooth radio voice as he reads Olivia Saves the Circus.

“I want to do good things, and volunteering is the most direct way to do that,” he said. “Everything else is more abstract. Here, it’s easy to know that I’m doing the right thing.”

My volunteers might also have read the neverending stream of articles and research that update the adage that we get more by giving.

Research shows that volunteering is good for your mental health. It correlates with lower levels of depression and higher life satisfaction, according to a recent review of 40 volunteerism studies led by Dr. Suzanne Richards at the University of Exeter. “We are hard-wired for face-to-face contact that includes lots of touch, eye contact, and smiles,” writes Sara Konrath, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “Such interactions release a hormone called oxytocin, which helps us to bond and care for others, and also helps us to handle stress better.”

More surprisingly, volunteering might impact your physical health. In one 1999 University of California, Berkeley, study led by Dr. Doug Oman, elderly volunteers who pitched in at two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die than non-volunteers over a five-year period. That’s while controlling for age, exercise, and overall health.

“Volunteering can take your mind off stressors,” Oman told me, and “social connections foster longevity and health.”

Young adults may also get healthier from volunteering, he said, “but they might not immediately translate into observable health benefits. It’s like some things like eating a good diet or exercise. You might feel good, but there might not be big differences in whether you get sick. But down the road, if you’ve been eating healthy and exercising, in the long run, you’ll be less likely to have a health problem.”

Helping others could even make you more productive. A recent New York Times Magazine profile of business professor and giving guru Adam Grant, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting?,” implores readers to tap into their generous sides to achieve six-figure success like Grant. “The greatest untapped source of motivation, [Grant] argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other people’s lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

Out of curiosity, I gave my tutors a multiple-choice poll to find out why they volunteer. Of the 19 who filled out the poll, only two admitted they do it to “step away from the computer,” but 10 volunteers wanted to do something different from school or work duties. Five said they wanted to add another dimension to their resumes. The most popular reason? The feel-good response, with all but one volunteer selecting it: “To do something positive and meaningful.”

Eight were interested in exploring nonprofit or education careers. “To find out where my activist passion is and where it might be useful,” wrote Mandy Herrmann, who works at a local bakery.

Ten of them also wanted to connect more deeply with their community. Twelve were in it to mentor a child. “I think kids are amazing and I really would like to help them with education and other things they need,” wrote Jordan Harris, a tutor through New Door Ventures, which places at-risk young adults in jobs and internships.

Some respondents wrote that volunteering broke through life’s malaise. “Over six years of college, I have found class or academic unfulfilling,” wrote Tiffany Melvin, an English major at University of San Francisco who also works in visitor services at the de Young Museum. But in volunteering, “I find a place where my skills are valued and I actually help someone. This means more, because I am applying myself to a need, a concrete purpose.”

It also keeps personal drama in perspective. Volunteering “puts me in a better state of mind and makes me more giving, keeps me from being too self-centered,” said Rachel Neil, who works in energy policy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

The compulsion to volunteer comes from an interrelated mix of motivations. My tutors feel validated and immediately useful when they help a student, something they may not get in their jobs or classes. It adds variety to their lives and their CVs, and it gives them 8-year-old friends.

As Charlie told me, it can be mind-expanding to think like a kid again. “You have to stick to simple topics like food or family or things you’ve done recently,” he said. “It makes being sarcastic or ironic out of the question. What would they find interesting about my day? Not this story I heard on the news, but, ‘Oh, I had a great brownie today!'”

I can empathize with my volunteers. I turned down a promotion to do this year of AmeriCorps and connect more deeply with humans instead of my computer screen. In one recent day, two kids hugged me, and a student told me she loved me. In the words of Mr. McCartney, money can’t buy me love.


Rebecca Huval lives in San Francisco.



Show Comments

From Our Partners