Volunteering: it’s all about you

Kelly Lynch headshot

By Kelly Lynch, Content Specialist

At an elemental level, people have a need for security, safety and comfort. You can’t really blame us – it’s better than the alternatives of insecurity, danger and discomfort. If we don’t feel safe, our evolutionary biology kicks in and we experience a desire to either fight or fly. This desire manifests in various ways, sometimes in unethical ways. If we encounter something or someone unfamiliar or unknown, if we are outside of our comfort zone, it can make us feel threatened, and we don’t always react in thoughtful, rational or generous ways. But, fight and flight reactions are a kind of fall back for our brains. They’re instincts that have come up through our gene pool, ingrained in us to help keep us alive. And how can we manage something in us that’s instinctual? That’s present at a genetic level? Can we train ourselves to act in ways other than what our genes intend?

This is where volunteering comes in.

 How volunteering can re-train our brains

Our need to feel safe, to be productive and to overcome challenges is precisely why we create in groups and out groups in social settings, sometimes without even realizing we’re doing it. And it’s not just about being physically safe, but psychologically and emotionally safe as well. We have a drive to protect our beliefs and our value systems just as much as our squishy human bodies. And it’s much easier to do that with backup (read: a team) to legitimize actions, choices, and behaviors.

In our desire to feel safe, we bond together with those whom we see as most like us so that we can protect ourselves from those who might do us harm. The virtual fences we build keep the outsiders away and allow us to go on with our daily lives feeling protected and secure.”

Before we can bond together with others like us, we tend to first have an idea or a sense of who we are within a social situation. This comes from things like culture, upbringing, personal experience, closely held moral values, etc. As we move in and out of different social scenarios and environments, we repeatedly re-orient to perform roles based on:

  • How we see ourselves;
  • our perception of societal conventions;
  • how we categorize others within that context, and;
  • where we fit within those societal conventions and who we see as our in group in that moment.

The darker side of in groups/out groups is that, “The group to which we belong serves to […] enhance our sense of self. When our group succeeds and another fails we experience an increase in our status as individuals.” If our individual status is raised because of the failure of our out group, it means there’s the possibility that we will either actively seek for that group to fail or suffer, or that we are less caring that they do fail or suffer. As long as our status is maintained and we feel as if we belong and are seen, our empathy for perceived out groups does not change.

Volunteering does the work of creating a social space where conventional social rules – and as such, in group/out group rules – do not apply in ways we expect, especially when it comes to status (socio-economic, etc.). ­What’s brilliant about this is that even if we go in with an idea of who we should be in that scenario, we often find our self-categorization turned on its head by the end of the experience. Who we are in that stroke of time in our lives and what we receive from a volunteering experience as an individual is often overlooked when we talk about what makes a volunteer experience “good.”

With conventional social barriers knocked back, an opportunity to re-train our brains appears; a chance arises for us to habituate to a new way of thinking about ourselves and, in turn, about those whom we consider an out group. Moving from a feeling of helping to a feeling of belonging in a volunteering context signals a change in our perception of who is part of our in group. Just as importantly, it also signals a change in our perception and categorization of ourselves within not just our immediate social context (the volunteer experience), but extended social contexts as well. This is what growing empathy looks like. This is what confronting bias looks like. This is why volunteering is all about the individual.

What is a “good” volunteering experience?

A “good” volunteering experience can mean a lot of different things to different people. It’s not one-dimensional and it can be pretty relative. We can say that a volunteer experience needs to be “meaningful” for volunteers to buy-in and to maintain motivation to volunteer. Yet for one person, “meaningful” may mean well-organized and it may mean volunteers understand how many lives they’ll impact with their work. To another person, meaningful may mean they have a chance to interact more closely with community members in a social way. The list goes on. And it’s important to know this when it comes to volunteering practice. People learn and react to experiences very differently depending on how that experience is set up, who attends, the cause, the perceived impact, the longevity of the engagement with a nonprofit; there are innumerable variables. You can’t please everyone, and you’re not necessarily going to have a volunteering project that inspires intrinsic motivation right away, especially for first-time volunteers.

Creating meaningful, inspiring, motivating volunteering experiences takes a thoughtful, rigorous approach to the kind of experience we’re providing to volunteers. We must be conscious that volunteers are potentially confronting issues and environments that are sometimes completely out of their comfort zone or understanding of how societies function. It’s not easy, and it often takes repeated exposure to these experiences to see changes in both self-categorization and perception of out groups. Changing how our brain works – creating new synaptic pathways through habitual behavior – takes time. In short: facilitating “good” volunteer experience ain’t easy.

Managing implicit bias and addressing prejudice through volunteering

In a study done with 132 American university students, students were led to self-categorize as Americans or students, and reported their anger and respect towards Muslims and police. Results indicated that in reaction to Muslims, participants felt more anger and less respect when categorized as Americans than when categorized as students. In reaction to police, participants felt less anger and more respect when categorized as Americans than when categorized as students. This study furthers the theory that social categorization dictates emotional reactions.

“The self-categorization approach is particularly useful because it does not depend, as many of social psychology’s strategies for prejudice reduction do, on re-categorizing or de-categorizing targets of prejudice.”

A volunteering experience can be structured to encourage volunteers to address not only the in group/out group re-categorization, as mentioned above, but self-categorization as well. It’s key to have a volunteer leader or leaders who understand they need to go beyond simply meeting the logistical needs of less seasoned volunteers to provide a meaningful volunteer opportunity. To Realized Worth, a “meaningful” volunteer opportunity sets out parameters that make it possible for a person to feel safe while:

  • Confronting their own bias;
  • interacting with a perceived out group;
  • experiencing shifts in perspective

How, you may be asking yourself, can a volunteer leader possibly facilitate all the above without throwing a social psychology book at their volunteers and hoping for the best? An important part of Realized Worth’s Transformative Volunteering approach is what we call “framing the volunteer experience.” This includes three key behaviors that leaders can follow to structure a volunteer event so it has the potential to feel meaningful. They are:

The brief, where volunteer leaders prepare volunteers to begin thinking critically about:

  • The project tasks in relation to the beneficiary.
  • The commonalities between the beneficiary and the volunteer.
  • What it is they receive as individuals from a volunteer experience.
  • How they see themselves as a member of the community.
  • What it means to be complicit in a systemic issue vs. pushing back against that issue.

Guide participants, where volunteer leaders:

  • Provide/assign tasks that fit with where volunteers are on their journey – check out our tourist, traveler, guide resource.
  • Draw out through guidance and oversight what motivates and moves volunteers to action.

The debrief, where volunteer leaders give volunteers space and time to:

  • Open up in a group setting and verbally reflect on what they were presented with in the brief.
  • Talk about what they experienced that day and how it may have challenged their expectations and understanding of themselves, the beneficiaries, the cause or the issue.
  • Listen to and reflect on the experience of others.

Why Transformative Volunteering?

In our Transformative Volunteering approach, the most important change is the one that takes place within the individual when it comes to confronting personal bias, systemic thought and prejudices. Transformative Volunteering uses critical thinking and the opportunity to reflect on our prejudices, our biases, our self-categorizations and how those make us feel about certain groups, to invite individuals to grow their empathy, compassion and understanding.

But as is the case with providing any “good” volunteer experience, it is a process, and it takes time to change human habit and thought. Confronting our own value systems and beliefs and overcoming them to create new ways of thinking is a difficult process that requires the safe space volunteering provides, and the guidance of a seasoned volunteer leader. While volunteering is only one way to do this, it is also likely one of the most accessible activities that bring together unlikely social groups in a neutral setting. It’s one activity that makes sense as a starting place to break down inequality and see one another for what we are – human. Simply human.


Realized Worth is a global agency that specializes in employee volunteer training, volunteer program design, and employee engagement. Want to talk? Shoot us an email. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Menu