The Personal Benefits Of Volunteering & Why They Matter

What are the personal benefits of volunteering? Should they matter or should volunteering be an entirely selfless act? At African Impact, we believe that volunteering should benefit everyone involved: both the communities we work in and the volunteers who join our programs. Here’s why.

Shaping Futures: The Personal Benefits & Transformative Power of Volunteering

Here, at African Impact, we truly believe in the transformative power and benefits of volunteering. Much of the success of our projects can be attributed to the time, energy and money contributed by our international volunteers. They help support the impacts we are making across Africa in wildlife conservation, healthcare, and education. Thanks to our volunteers, the communities in our project locations have benefitted from increased access to basic healthcare and education. This is our primary goal as a voluntary organisation: to make a positive long-term impact and benefit the communities we work with.

The feedback we get from our volunteers is that they too directly benefit from their experience and leave our projects transformed, with a different perspective on the world and their place in it. They learn about cultures that differ from their own, create lasting friendships and leave feeling empowered to continue applying their skills to causes they care about. Communities and wildlife aren’t the only beneficiaries here – it’s a two-way street.

Can the benefits of volunteering change us or alter the trajectory of our lives?

At a recent conference, our director Greg Bows found himself in a conversation discussing how volunteering shapes us as individuals, has the potential to heighten our understanding of others and ultimately change us for the better. Jokingly, it was suggested that if some of our world leaders had volunteered as young people, they may have turned out quite differently. This leads us to question: Does volunteering really change us or alter the trajectory of our lives? If so, how might the world look if volunteering was more commonplace in our societies? It would be a task to answer these questions definitively, but the topic got us thinking.

In this blog post, we take a closer look at three personal benefits of volunteering for the individual before theorising on how this might benefit society and the world at large.

Volunteering Benefit 1:  Improved Employability

‘Engaging in volunteering can and does have an incredible, transformative power. At its best, volunteering can provide those who take part with the skills and experience to thrive. It can help people into jobs, act as a pathway into new careers and it can help people to get better jobs. It can boost social mobility.’ – Royal Voluntary Service.

a woman standing at a blackboard teaching a classroom of children in Zambia illustrating learning new skills as benefit of volunteering

Volunteers credit their experience with improving their employability and ‘soft skills’

The above quote is from a 2021 Royal Voluntary Service report examining the motivations, attitudes, benefits, routes, and barriers to volunteering and its effects on civic life and society. This conclusion was reached from research spanning a literature report, a quantitative survey of 1,000 recent volunteers, and a qualitative survey of their own volunteers. Interestingly, whilst their literature review offered limited evidence that volunteering experience factored into the decisions of recruiters, a significant 58% of the volunteers interviewed credited volunteering with improving their job chances.

One explanation for this is that over a third of all volunteers also reported that volunteering had improved both their confidence and their communication skills. The enhancement of these ‘soft-skills’ was even more evident in young people, with 52% acknowledging an improvement in confidence and 60% an improvement in communication skills. Whilst recruiters may not think to attribute these skills to an individual’s volunteering experience, applicants can recognize how volunteering has benefited their self-development and, subsequently, their job success.

Volunteering can help people gain training, professional skills, and experience

Additionally, the Royal Voluntary Service noted that an overwhelming majority of volunteers who undertook training as part of their role felt that this had improved their employability, including 100% of volunteers 16-19 years old and 97% of those 20-29 years old. This is unsurprising, as employers often demand a specific number of years’ experience when recruiting: a common grievance amongst new university graduates who struggle to gain experience without first securing employment. For many, volunteering offers a more accessible solution to attaining that experience and bridging the gap between education and work.

Often , the skills and experience gained from volunteering are happenstance: unintentional benefits of altruism. After all, volunteers often step into job roles which people are usually paid for, in areas and/or for causes which lack funding and resources. The skills and experience to be gained from volunteering can range from customer service to administration to content writing to teaching to leadership. The possible benefits are endless and aren’t always obvious.

Voluntary internships

Voluntary internship programs, however, are designed to help volunteers develop professionally and gain career-focused skills whilst giving back. For example, our Wildlife Research Internship in Greater Kruger gives volunteers the chance to practice data collection, analysis techniques such as QGIS, wildlife and habitat mapping, camera-trapping, and producing comprehensive reports. These are all valuable skills for any aspiring wildlife conservationist and can be evidenced in job applications. In return, the work the interns undertake supports local conservation efforts. Voluntary internship programs are intentionally beneficial for both parties.

Is volunteering experience beneficial on a resume?

Ultimately, how beneficial it is to have volunteering experience on a resume may depend on:

  1. Identification of skills and experience gained through volunteering
  2. How relevant these skills are to the role applied for
  3. How effectively this is communicated in cover letters and interviews

Ultimately, volunteers feel more employable

Lastly, let’s not overlook how much more employable the interviewees reported feeling after volunteering. The significance of this is not to be underestimated.

Volunteering Benefit 2: Boosted Confidence and Self-Esteem

“I genuinely feel like I’m leaving this place a different woman than when I arrived. I grew in self-confidence, my mental health improved, and I felt I grew in independence.” – African Impact Volunteer

Woman raising two fists in triumph to illustrate confidence as a benefit of volunteering

Does volunteering boost confidence and self-esteem?

As mentioned, the Royal Voluntary Service observed a significant increase in self-reported confidence in the volunteers they surveyed. Similarly, in 2014, an evaluation of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (UK)’s Volunteering for Stronger Communities program reported ‘notable improvements’ in volunteers’ confidence and self-esteem following their engagement. Participants also reported that these positive changes in their well-being were sustained for at least a year after volunteering.

In a TEDxYouth talk titled ‘The Unexpected Outcomes of Volunteering’, Maitreyi Shrikhande describes how her experiences of volunteering throughout her childhood pushed her out of her comfort zone, requiring her to step into her confidence, even when it felt out of reach. She recalls a feeling of accomplishment following a particularly nerve-wracking first day playing cello at her local hospital, saying ‘I did something I’d never done before – something I would have never imagined myself doing – and that gave me confidence’.

African Impact volunteers report improved confidence

This boost in confidence is something we regularly witness in our own volunteers. Recently, a parent shared the impact that volunteering with African Impact had on her teenage son in a blog post. She described an astonishing transformation in his self-belief – and there were signs of this positive impact before he’d even packed his bags, as he found purpose in researching and planning his volunteering adventure. When asked if their experience with African Impact has helped them grow as a person, another recent volunteer said that it ‘really really helped improve my confidence and self-belief’. A third said: ‘I have been challenged in ways that I didn’t know existed and as a result, I am more confident and empathetic as a person.’

Why is increased confidence and self-esteem a benefit of volunteering?

Is it then, as suggested by these examples, the challenge of volunteering and the stepping out of our comfort zones that inspires such a boost in confidence? That would make sense, as the NHS reports that having low self-esteem and confidence often presents itself in behaviours such as avoiding social situations, challenges, and new experiences. In other words – staying in our comfort zones. This can then become a self-fulfilling cycle. Volunteering can offer us the opportunity to break this cycle, step out of our comfort zones and challenge these beliefs, through:

  • Socialising and fostering a sense of community
  • Overcoming challenges and achieving goals
  • Trying and learning new things
  • Contributing to something meaningful

These things can help us recognise our strengths and boost our self-belief, nurturing our sense of confidence and our self-esteem: an undeniable benefit of volunteering.

Volunteering Benefit 3: Social Connection

‘The community we created as a team was phenomenal’ – African Impact Volunteer

two people hugging as they say goodbye after volunteering in Zambia to illustrate connection as a benefit of volunteering

Volunteering creates quality relationships by bringing people together in a united goal

In a 2011 study and report, The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) found that ‘a desire to make and/or embed social connections, meet new people, and combat isolation or loneliness led many people to get involved in a collective activity’. They also said that their research vividly highlighted ‘the human desire to be with others in a joint endeavour’ and the strength and quality of the relationships that grew between participants belonging to a group.

This is unsurprising to us, as one of the most common things our volunteers feed back to us is how much they value the connections they make whilst volunteering – with their fellow volunteers, the African Impact team, and the people from the communities we work in. It’s always wonderful to hear of friendships that have lasted long after volunteers have returned home. We hardly need to do further research to recognise social connection as a personal benefit of volunteering – it’s one we’ve all experienced!

Volunteering abroad strengthens international connections

Volunteering abroad offers volunteers the additional opportunity to form connections with people from all around the world, both with the citizens of the country they’re visiting and with fellow international volunteers. It’s the perfect opportunity to meet people from different geographical, cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds, exchange stories and embrace both similarities and differences – united by a common goal.

‘Everyone I met had a story to tell that allowed me to feel comfortable and at home even across the world.’ – African Impact Volunteer

How The Personal Benefits of Volunteering Can Have a Societal Impact

photo of three volunteers high five-ing with red gloves on in Greater Kruger National Park Rahel Scheier (@Rah_Sch)

So, if we accept the above three points as examples of how volunteering benefits the individual, how might this benefit wider society? Firstly, we could hope that if more people volunteered, more people would:

  • Gain skills and experience that could increase their job opportunities
  • Be more confident and with improved self-esteem
  • Feel more connected to others and their local and/or global communities

This alone, could be considered beneficial to society and lead to a society of happier, healthier people with a sense of citizenship. 

However, there is more…

Positive volunteering experiences lead to continued active citizenship

In their research into participation and active citizenship, the NCVO recognised that, whilst altruism is not lacking in participation, ‘if there is not some mutual benefit then people’s involvement may falter’. So, whilst people may initially choose to volunteer from an altruistic standpoint, a positive volunteering experience with identifiable benefits for the volunteer encourages their continued active participation. This ‘active participation’ refers to things such as further volunteering, voting, campaigning, or individual action that reflects the kind of society they want to live in (e.g., buying fair-trade products).

In other words, more people will be actively shaping the kind of world they want to live in with the financial security, confidence, self-esteem, and sense of community needed to support them in their efforts. And that’s a benefit of volunteering worth shouting about.

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