I’m too busy’, most people say.

Yet the saying goes, ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person. It is generally busy people who say ‘Yes’ when you ask for help, or when new ideas, or groups or tasks come along, needing resources to make them happen.

Why do people volunteer?

Why would a busy person – indeed, any person – ‘volunteer’ to undertake an unpaid task, such as president, secretary, treasurer or other responsible position of a sports club, neighbourhood association, culture or interest group?

Recent statistics for Australia show that 31% of people undertake more than an hour a week of volunteer work, but that was down from 36% in the last census survey four years ago.

I have to say, I am one of the 31-36%. I’m a regular volunteer. I’ve started basketball clubs, business research groups, cultural exchange groups. I’ve been a basketball coach, referee, student newspaper writer/editor, committee volunteer and lots more. Currently, I’m volunteer president of an environmental group, personal business mentor, non-profit business advisor and sommelier for two different groups, not to mention volunteer blogger! And I think I’m about to become ‘volunteer child minder’, as grandchildren appear in my life.

For most people, they can’t believe I would want to do these things, or that I have time to do them. And I understand that for some people with very heavy jobs involving long hours, and young children to care for, these are difficult times to be a volunteer. For me, these are things I enjoy doing or wanted to do, and I volunteered all through the period of young children, and even when I was working in another city for six years.

Occasionally, I take on a task because no one else wants to do it but I think it is worthwhile doing or needs to be done. So, for me, there is satisfaction that these tasks are being done, that something useful is coming out of doing the task or that someone or many people are helped by me doing this task.

An example

Take one example. I refereed junior basketball games for 20 years/40 seasons. I stopped recently, only because I felt my decisionmaking and eyesight might be declining, so that I felt the quality of my decisions might be declining (Yes, referees are aware of whether or not they are doing a good job, and I found that the crowd’s opinion was often close to the truth if there was a lot of disagreement with me). Not only did I do this for no money, but I did it every Saturday afternoon in school terms, thereby interfering with weekend away possibilities. Clearly, I must be crazy!

Why did I do this? First, I love basketball and I found that, being too injury-prone to continue playing, refereeing was a way to be on the court and in the game. Second, I think my decisionmaking helped the quality of the game. Parents often thanked me for my refereeing and that’s quite rare. Third, I felt the basketball association could do more with the money than pay me. It was a way to give back to the game, the community. Fourth, I was helping kids. I actually didn’t enjoy refereeing men (they argue too much), but I felt kids needed a good structure to enjoy the game and the referees play a key role in that enjoyment. (Referees are best when they are not noticed, where the decisions they make are the ones the crowd expects and the players can get on with the game, knowing how the rules will be interpreted.)

Other ‘value’ from volunteering

In this example, there was no higher purpose or ultimate outcome from what I did, but I do get that from other volunteer work I do.

Another value of volunteering is learning about a new area, gaining new skills. For instance, taking a menial job in another area of life (eg helping clean up school grounds, volunteering with the CFA, refugees, domestic violence victims) often introduces you to information and activities you had no concept of.

Another value is meeting new people. It’s much easier to be appointed as a volunteer than to apply for a new job, but the outcome is often similar. You learn about a new organisation, often learn new skills and certainly meet new people, some of whom may well become friends over time. If you move to a new location, this is a great way to meet new people and learn about it.

Yet another – perhaps unexpected – value is improved mental health. People who volunteer have been shown to be happier, feel more satisfied, more alive, more active.

So that’s the ultimate paradox of volunteering: work more or harder and you feel happier. That extra work is not only good for others. Extra work is good for you too!

Get involved in something. Make a difference. You do have the time. You’ll enjoy it. And you will be healthier.


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