A personal perspective
When I gave birth to my twins some 25 years ago, I told my husband “I want at least a year off before I think about going back to work”, and somehow that one year stretched into three. Then my third child arrived and the “going back to work” in any serious capacity was put on permanent hold as I made the most of being a stay-at-home Mum. Having had problems conceiving and the twins being born as the result of IVF treatment, I was happy to be able to focus on raising the family I’d longed for, and we were lucky in that we could manage financially with me not working.
However, being at home with small people did have its challenges as well as benefits, so it was important for me to do something outside of the bubble of family life. As soon as my youngest started at school, I started volunteering at our local Oxfam charity shop, sorting and pricing clothes that had been donated, ready for them to sell.
I chose Oxfam because I have long supported charities that address needs in the developing world. It makes sense to me that I should give my time and money where the needs for basics that we take for granted are often unmet. Also, I like shops! Whilst I was at university, my parents bought a wool shop, and the first summer that my mother opened it, I really enjoyed helping out in the shop as her assistant.
The first thing I noticed at Oxfam was the benefit of being appreciated. Every time I finished a shift, as I left my manager always said “Thanks for what you’ve done this morning, Sarah!”. At the time, the value of that simple ‘thankyou’ was huge. At home, I was busy most of the day looking after everyone else’s needs, and it’s not that it was unappreciated, but it was rare to get a “thankyou” from a busy husband, or small children who were used to fish fingers appearing as if by magic at tea time – after all, that’s what Mums are for, isn’t it???
I really enjoyed doing something that wasn’t connected to family, school and children. It allowed me a view of the wider world again. And the other volunteers were lovely – Oxfam is a real community and one of the things I love about our shop is that the volunteers range from 14 – 80, so there’s a real mix of different people working towards a common goal. One the things that I love observing in the youngsters, is their confidence growing as they work with volunteers old enough to be parents or grannies. They are used to being treated as children or pupils, but here they are equals – part of the team- and they love it!
Over the years I have continued to volunteer in Oxfam (16 years and still counting!) and have also had shorter bouts of volunteering at other local charities including a community pantry. I have found it to be beneficial to my psychological wellbeing in a number of ways, and looking at the research on volunteering supports those findings.
Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT) suggests that everyone has three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness which when met will lead to psychological growth and development (Ryan & Deci, 2000). They also state that these needs are best met when our motivation is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when we enjoy an activity for its own sake, the motivation is internal to us and may be driven by our values and the things we enjoy, whereas extrinsic rewards are external to us, for example, money or a feeling of success compared to others.
If we find the right role in which to volunteer, we can hit all the sweet spots of SDT. Volunteering can help us develop autonomy, competency and relatedness, and if we choose the right role in the right organisation, we can find something that is intrinsically motivating which we will love doing.
Autonomy and working according to personal values
One of the big benefits of volunteering is autonomy. You get to decide what you want to do, where you want to do it and why. You might be motivated by what an organisation is trying to achieve, or by what you actually get to do – for example if you are stuck in office all day and there is a local conservation charity you might love the chance to work outdoors with others at the weekend. But your why is yours – you can choose for your own reasons, not because it’s the best paid job, or your boss tells you to do it. So, if you are thinking of volunteering, look for something that you think is worthwhile and you think would be fun or satisfying to do which will satisfy your need for intrinsic motivation and add to your sense of autonomy.
Developing new skills and competencies
Another great thing about volunteering is the chance to try something new or develop new skills. At Oxfam, I’m now an expert at selling second-hand menswear – maybe not an obviously transferable skill, but there’s a lot wrapped up in that. I have learnt retail skills, such as pricing and marketing, how to deal with customers (which has improved my confidence) and how to deal with fellow volunteers (everyone has something different to add, you should always respect that). But also, I have developed a skill for just looking for what needs doing and getting on with it. Overall, my confidence and competence has grown over the years, and I can apply that sense of competency to other areas in my life.
Relatedness – Connection to others
If I had to select a single overriding benefit to my personal volunteering experience, I would say it was connection to others and to the bigger world. It allows me to reach out from my personal family bubble and feel connected to others in the context of values that I hold. At a practical level, when you start volunteering you meet a new bunch of likeminded people amongst your fellow volunteers and make new friends, but depending on what you choose to do, you may also connect with people that you wish to help directly or the just the general public.
At Oxfam we joke that we are part of a larger “Oxfamily”, and in many other organisations (for example if you help with Scouting or your local kids’ football team) you will become part of a local community and maybe a bigger community too. In addition, working with others on something you believe to be important, reinforces those values in yourself and signals that importance to others too. For example, if you care about climate change, joining a local group to take some small action, will reinforce your desire to make a change, and will affect others around you to influence them to make changes too. As the saying says, “be the change you want to see in the world”.
When thinking about the benefits of volunteering, some of these benefits also exist in paid work, but one big advantage to volunteering is flexibility. Because you are giving your time, it’s your call what you do and when you can do it. When I started volunteering at Oxfam, as my children were young, I didn’t work school holidays, also if one of them was sick, I didn’t feel so bad calling in to say I wouldn’t be able to make it after all. Now they are older I work school holidays, but I still have the flexibility to change or cancel a day if needs be.
This flexibility and lack of pressure can also make it easier to use volunteering as a stepping stone to get back into work if you have been off work long term due to mental or physical illness and find some days easier than others. Or if you are working already, you can fit your volunteering round your work life.
Or if you can’t commit to something regular, volunteer for something as a one off. Every year, hundreds of volunteers head to music festivals to work on behalf of Oxfam. They work as stewards, checking tickets, directing cars or any number of jobs that the festival organisers need doing. In return for working, they can spend their free time enjoying the festival. Oxfam provides a variety of benefits including training, some meals & refreshments – and most importantly at some festivals – access to the crew loos and hot showers!!! The festival organiser pays Oxfam for providing the workers, Oxfam ploughs the money into its life changing projects, the workers have a great time – everyone’s a winner!
Links to other theories of wellbeing
In this article I have focussed on the connection between the benefits of volunteering and Self-Determination Theory as many of the benefits I have observed map nicely onto the three components of autonomy, competence and relatedness. However if you look at any of the other models of wellbeing you can see that the benefits discussed have strong overlap with other factors thought to contribute to wellbeing: For example, Ryff’s theory of psychological wellbeing which proposes six factors of wellbeing: autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance (Ryff, 1989), or Seligmann’s PERMA model (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment) (Butler & Kern, 2016).
In addition, there is research which links volunteering to reduced depression, reduced mortality, improved physical functioning, increase in a sense of purposefulness, pride and empowerment, feelings of altruism and self-actualisation (Nichol et al., 2023). Obviously, we can’t guarantee all of those for everyone if you do a shift or two at Oxfam, but the signs are there that you may benefit in some way!
The downside of volunteering
Having sung the praises of volunteering, are there any down sides?
Yes! As in all things, it’s about balance. Helping others will be good for you, but not if it drains and depletes your energy and becomes overwhelming. One of the downsides to voluntary organisations is that there is often more work that needs to be done than people to do it. So, it can be easy to get sucked in to feeling that you are needed and take on more than you can cope with, particularly if you are also trying to manage working or family demands.
To stop this happening, you need to make sure that you set healthy boundaries – that you are clear on what you can and can’t do. And if things become overwhelming, take a step back. No-one is indispensable. There’s often a problem in voluntary organisations where there is one key person who is super-involved and efficient, when they want to step down. No-one else feels up to filling their shoes and taking over the role, because they don’t feel they have the same amount of time or capability. But this is where flexibility is required! Maybe the role can be split, or maybe there’s someone in the wings who is waiting to shine.
So, when you realise it’s time for a change, that you are no longer enjoying your voluntary job and want to do something different, then stop. Find yourself a new role, or just have a rest. You have to believe that someone else will come forward, and by stepping back, you are giving someone else the chance to shine. So, when a role is no-longer right for you, it’s time to step back or quit.
Volunteering can be a very positive thing to do, both for yourself and whatever cause you want to support. To get the most out of it, looks at your motivations for being involved – do you agree with the values of the organisation? Will the role be fun, or satisfying in some way that appeals to you? Is the organisation supportive and welcoming? In a good voluntary setting, volunteers will be treated with respect and valued for what they can bring. Everyone has some positive qualities and strengths to bring to their role and a good manager or team leader will allow everyone to feel valued whilst contributing what they can. If it doesn’t quite fit the bill, or you realise you’ve outgrown a role and there’s no more opportunity to change and grow, don’t be afraid to step down and maybe try something new. But if you find something you truly love, you may find you are still there 16 years later…
For information about volunteering opportunities in your area: https://getvolunteering.co.uk
For further information about volunteering at Oxfam festivals go to: https://festivals.oxfam.org.uk/volunteering/
Butler, J., & Kern, M. L. (2016). The PERMA-Profiler: A brief multidimensional measure of flourishing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 6(3), 1–48. https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v6i3.526
Nichol, B., Wilson, R., Rodrigues, A., & Haighton, C. (2023). Exploring the Effects of Volunteering on the Social, Mental, and Physical Health and Well-being of Volunteers: An Umbrella Review. Voluntas, 1. https://doi.org/10.1007/S11266-023-00573-Z
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68
Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069–1081. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2069
Read more about Sarah Cramoysan and her other articles HERE
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