The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer

By Wilson, John; Musick, Marc | Law and Contemporary Problems, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer


Wilson, John, Musick, Marc, Law and Contemporary Problems


JOHN WILSON [*]

MARC MUSICK [**]

I

INTRODUCTION

To most people, a "volunteer" is someone who contributes time to helping others with no expectation of pay or other material benefit to herself. However, this does not mean that volunteer work is of no consequence for the volunteer. Indeed, it is widely believed that helping others is as beneficial for the donor as it is for the recipient. "Research studies show that most people do in fact hold the belief that helping others is a good way to gain fulfillment for yourself." [1] In this article, we review some of the research on the supposed benefits of volunteering and describe briefly some of the results of our own work in this area. We first examine the contribution volunteering is thought to make to a society's social capital, its supply of the generalized trust and norms of reciprocity that make democratic politics possible. Are volunteers more civic minded and more likely to take an active role in political life? Next, we examine the possible link between volunteering and "leading the good life." Are vol unteers less likely to engage in anti-social behavior? We then consider the contribution volunteering might make to both physical and mental health. Is there any evidence to suggest that volunteering can make people healthier or contribute positive feelings of well-being? Finally, we examine the contribution volunteering makes to occupational achievement. Is there any empirical evidence to support the notion that volunteering is either a direct path to good jobs or indirectly provides the self-confidence and skills needed to secure good jobs or to do well in the jobs we have?

II

CITIZENSHIP

For a number of reasons, the possibility that volunteering is useful for building and maintaining civil society--a sphere of activity where people feel free to organize groups, engage in public debate, and in which norms of mutual respect and toleration protect the voices of majority and minority alike--has recently been undergoing fresh scrutiny. Part of this renewed interest stems from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the task faced by newly democratizing countries trying to build, or re-build, the infrastructure of participatory politics. How do people acquire the skills and aptitudes necessary for the give-and-take of democratic government? Some of this renewed interest also stems from concerns expressed in established democracies that fewer and fewer people are taking the time to vote, run for local office, or support political organizations with their time and money. Ever since de Tocqueville's mid-nineteenth-century analysis of American democracy, it has been assumed that a healthy voluntary secto r is vital to the survival of democratic politics. [2] De Tocqueville believed that voluntary associations were essential intermediary bodies between the mass of individuals and their institutions of government. [3] Active membership in a voluntary association created the generalized trust--a trust that extends beyond the boundaries of kinship and friendship--on which democratic political life depends. If the habit of "joining" were allowed to die, so too would democracy.

Robert Putnam, who found substantial variation in the performance of Italian governmental institutions across different regions, has recently revived this idea. [4] His explanation for this variation centered on the concept of social capital. Putnam defined social capital as "features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions." [5] His theory, redolent of de Tocqueville, is that active membership in voluntary associations generates the trust necessary for people to organize effectively and act collectively. The associations need not be political to have this beneficial effect, although those that were organized "horizontally," where members could easily participate in running the organization, would be more likely to produce it.

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