Volunteers sweep the boardwalk in Brooklyn after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy.
Volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity where an individual or group provides services for no financial gain. Volunteering is also renowned for skill development, and is often intended to promote goodness or to improve human quality of life. Volunteering may have positive benefits for the volunteer as well as for the person or community served. It is also intended to make contacts for possible employment. Many volunteers are specifically trained in the areas they work, such as medicine, education, or emergency rescue. Others serve on an as-needed basis, such as in response to a natural disaster.
Etymology and history
The verb was first recorded in 1755. It was derived from the noun volunteer, in C.1600, “one who offers himself for military service,” from the Middle French voluntaire. In the non-military sense, the word was first recorded during the 1630s. The word volunteering has more recent usage—still predominantly military—coinciding with the phrase community service. In a military context, a volunteer army is a military body whose soldiers chose to enter service, as opposed to having been conscripted. Such volunteers do not work “for free” and are given regular pay.
During this time, America experienced the Great Awakening. People became aware of the disadvantaged and realized the cause for movement against slavery. Younger people started helping the needy in their communities. In 1851, the first YMCA in the United States was started, followed seven years later by the first YWCA. During the American Civil War, women volunteered their time to sew supplies for the soldiers and the “Angel of the Battlefield” Clara Barton and a team of volunteers began providing aid to servicemen. Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and began mobilizing volunteers for disaster relief operations,including relief for victims of the Johnstown Flood in 1889.
20th and 21st centuries
The Salvation Army is one of the oldest and largest organization working for disadvantaged people. Though it is a charity organization, it has organized a number of volunteering programs since its inception. Prior to the 19th century, few formal charitable organizations existed to assist people in need.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, several volunteer organizations were founded, including the Rotary International, Kiwanis International, Association of Junior Leagues International, and Lions Clubs International.
The Great Depression saw one of the first large-scale, nationwide efforts to coordinate volunteering for a specific need. During World War II, thousands of volunteer offices supervised the volunteers who helped with the many needs of the military and the home front, including collecting supplies, entertaining soldiers on leave, and caring for the injured.
After World War II, people shifted the focus of their altruistic passions to other areas, including helping the poor and volunteering overseas. A major development was the Peace Corps in the United States in 1960. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, volunteer opportunities started to expand and continued into the next few decades. The process for finding volunteer work became more formalized, with more volunteer centers forming and new ways to find work appearing on the World Wide Web.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service (in 2012), about 64.5 million Americans, or 26.5 percent of the adult population, gave 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service worth $175 billion. This calculates at about 125–150 hours per year or 3 hours per week at a rate of $22 per hour. Volunteer hours in the UK are similar; the data for other countries is unavailable.
Volunteers assist survivors at the Houston Astrodome following Hurricane Katrina.