Defining What it Means to be a Volunteer

Friday, July 5, 2013

Now a few months shy of my second year of full-time service work, I find myself reflecting on how I define what it means to be a volunteer and what motivates me to do it. When I tell people that I am in my second year of AmeriCorps, they look at my like I have two heads. Why would anyone give up two full years of making money? When these questions first popped into my mind, I thought I'd solved it rather quickly. My answer: I am an able-bodied, educated (more or less) individual and have the time to devote my time and skills, for free, to a cause, organization, or person who needs them. So why not?

I was curious about what the dictionary said and how close my own response was to their definition of a volunteer.

Well, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides this definition for what a "volunteer" is:

volunteer (a noun): a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service: as

a: one who enters into military service voluntarily

b (1): one who renders a service or takes part in a transaction while having no legal concern or interest (2): one who receives a conveyance or transfer of property without giving valuable consideration
Similar to my original thought, Merriam-Webster's definition is based off of an assumption that the only "valuable" motivations are money, legality, and commitment. 

I thought about it some more and I realized that while it's not money, there are a lot of valuable reasons why I volunteer. Sometimes I get a t-shirt or food. Sometimes I come away having learned more than I feel I gave towards a cause or task. Other times I make friends who continue to stay my friends even after we are no longer volunteering together. I've built professional networks through my volunteer work. Even the AmeriCorps website has a page devoted to all of the non-monetary benefits to volunteering,

I became curious to learn what motivates others.

Being the researcher I am, and having a lot of friends who are more seasoned volunteers than I, I decided to ask what other people thought. I received some pretty interesting responses.

To paraphrase the responses: "I like volunteering because I can try something new and different;"  "It is just fun and feels good;" "I just am really passionate about this cause and want to help make it a success."

Looking for the motivations of volunteering, I realized something interesting. In their selflessness, volunteers are self-serving. Most volunteers don't want to admit this, but it's true.

But what can this we want our cake and we want to eat it too mentality of volunteers translate into? For those of us who enjoy what we receive from volunteering and want to get money from it too, it means more socially conscientious career-, business-, and political-based decisions. And, ever so slowly, change the world.

To be a volunteer is many things wrapped up into one. It is both an individualized and shared mindset among all who volunteer. It is finding worth in your life and the lives of others'

Volunteering is a part of living. So, I pose this question to you. How have you lived?

-Jacqui, AmeriCorps*VISTA


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