Not all volunteering activities are voluntary. Court-mandated community service, often in lieu of financial penalties, is a common component of criminal and civil judgments in many jurisdictions.
If you’ve been ordered by a judge to donate so many hours of your time, try to embrace the silver lining: It’s an opportunity to reap the benefits of giving back and develop a lasting love of volunteering in the process.
If no one’s forcing you to volunteer, you can still take advantage of its myriad upsides. Many volunteers give back not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because the activity is so beneficial for their physical and mental health, careers, and even finances. Seeing these benefits laid out in one place might be all you need to fully commit to volunteering on a regular basis.
Why Give Back? Potential Benefits of Volunteering Your Time
There are many upsides to volunteering, including potential career-boosting benefits you may not have considered. No matter where, for whom, or how much you volunteer, your work could have real, lasting benefits for your personal life and economic outlook. These are among the strongest arguments for volunteering when you can.
1. Favorable Tax Treatment for Qualified Expenses
Prospective volunteers are invariably disappointed to learn that volunteer time is not tax-deductible for single and joint filers who itemize their deductions. Nonprofit Quarterly offers a detailed explanation of the IRS’s reasoning.
On the bright side, most other volunteering-related expenses are tax-deductible when incurred in service to a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. If you’re a freelancer, solopreneur, or small-business owner who already deducts business expenses from your gross income, you may already be familiar with these common volunteer-related deductions:
- Reasonable travel expenses, such as driving to and from the volunteer site (deductible at $0.14 per mile as of the 2019 tax year) and airfare and lodging costs incurred during travel to disaster zones
- Telecommunications expenses
- Office supplies
- Special clothing or uniforms
- Goods or supplies not provided by the organization
- Meals not provided by the organization (deductible at 50% of the total cost)
2. Making New Friends & Social Connections
When you volunteer as part of a larger group, you forge new social connections, and perhaps long-lasting friendships too. It may also create a virtuous cycle in which friends you made through volunteering introduce you to like-minded people and turn you on to new opportunities to give back.
I’ve experienced the connective power of volunteering firsthand. My wife and I joined our neighborhood association’s board soon after moving to a new part of town and quickly made friends with a couple of fellow board members of similar age. We probably wouldn’t have met them had we kept to ourselves. Now, we say hi whenever we run into each other on the street and occasionally hang out at block parties and other events.
3. Acquiring or Refining Professional Experience & Skills
The right volunteering gig could polish your resume at a fraction of the cost of an equivalent continuing education course or certificate program. It could also keep your skills fresh through periods of unemployment and show prospective employers you’re keeping busy.
I don’t see my occasional work writing research summaries for a nonprofit refugee rights organization as a resume-builder, but the experience would certainly come in handy if I ever chose to apply for similar jobs in the nonprofit world. I’ve never been paid for comparable work, and it’s far from certain I’d be able to convince someone to hire me for it without prior experience.
4. Forging New Professional Connections
The connections you make through volunteer engagements aren’t only social. Volunteering is a great way to meet people who can advance your career without the effort and forced awkwardness of professional networking. I know two people who’ve parlayed part-time volunteering engagements into full-time work with the same nonprofit organization, and at least one person who met a future boss while volunteering with an unrelated nonprofit.
Even professional connections that don’t lead directly to full-time employment may be worth the effort to pursue. When neighborhood association boards in my hometown need to call in consultants for help with long-range planning, accounting, or legal services, they often call on folks with whom board members have good working relationships. As long as any given consultant is the best person for the job at hand and isn’t hampered by ethical conflicts, there’s nothing untoward about the practice – and it’s clearly beneficial for well-connected consultants.
5. Achieving Physical & Mental Health Benefits
Peer-reviewed science backs it up: The regular activity, exercise, and increased social connections of volunteering are good for your health. One major European study found that participants who volunteered often were less likely to show signs of depression than participants who volunteered infrequently.
A Carnegie Mellon study of older adults found a correlation between volunteer activity and hypertension, or high blood pressure. Prolific volunteers, defined as those who gave at least 200 hours within the past 12 months, were less likely to develop hypertension than infrequent volunteers and non-volunteers.
Volunteer opportunities that promote social connection – say, chairing a parent group at your kid’s school or working on a Habitat for Humanity home build – are more likely to improve mental health than solitary opportunities, such as my research summaries. Those that require sustained physical activity – such as the Habitat for Humanity home build – are more likely to improve physical health than sedentary engagements.
Be warned, though: A 2012 study using data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Survey found that altruism predicted mortality risk among volunteers. Those who volunteered out of the goodness of their hearts were less likely to die during the four-year study window than those whose motives weren’t as pure. While it’s not clear precisely why this is the case, it’s worth noting. If you expect volunteering to improve your health outcomes, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
6. Gaining Personal Fulfillment
Everyone has a different definition of “personal fulfillment.” Some volunteers prize the social aspect, regardless of the quantifiable health benefits of increased social connectivity. Others take comfort in working to improve the lives of the less fortunate or contributing something tangible to their communities.
Still others seek and find purpose in volunteering. That’s especially true for older, semi- or fully retired volunteers and those enduring temporary periods of unemployment. Purpose-driven volunteers may discover latent skills or personality attributes that come in handy in other areas of their lives, boosting their self-confidence and perhaps opening new avenues for personal or professional development.
By any reasonable standard, I don’t volunteer much of my time. At the absolute peak of my volunteering activities, I donated a few hours, at most, each week. Since becoming a parent, I simply haven’t had the time to give back in any concerted way. I’m far more likely these days to donate small amounts of money to causes I care about, rather than suit up and head out into the field on their behalf.
And yet, as I look back at my volunteerism over the years, I do feel as if I’ve made a difference in my community. I’ve taught English to recently resettled refugees, cleared and cleaned up nature trails, and sat on the board of a neighborhood association devoted to making life a little easier for the least fortunate among us. Thinking back on these efforts gives me joy.
Giving back doesn’t require inordinate commitments of time or talent. You can do what you can, when you can, and still reap the rewards of volunteering.