Volunteering Isn’t Unpaid Work

In many industries, it’s common for people who are just starting their careers to work for free for a while in an effort to pick up new skills and to build up their networks. Creatives working on spec or internships are good examples of this. Work like this ostensibly compensates interns and workers with new personal and professional opportunities.

This is not the same as volunteer work, however. Perhaps the biggest difference between volunteering and unpaid work is intention. Unpaid work is done with the hopes that it will open new doors for someone’s career. Volunteers are motivated by a desire to help others.

Still, the differences between unpaid work and volunteering aren’t always so clear. How, exactly, does an internship differ from volunteering, for example?

In this post, we’ll try to talk through these distinctions.

Volunteering vs. Interning vs. Unpaid Work

Sadly, there are some organizations that will try to elicit profitable work from people by disguising roles as volunteer opportunities.

In the United States, the Department of Labor has drawn very clear legal lines via the Fair Labor Standards Act. This law creates two big categories: 

  • Volunteers, who offer their services “for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives” without the expectation of compensation.
  • Employees, who are compensated for their labor in both public and private sectors. 

“Compensation,” according to this law, can mean wages or experience. The latter helps define internships and traineeships, whereby students or people early in their careers work within a company to build skills. The expectation is that this will benefit the trainee or intern, and that the organization will not rely on the trainee or intern’s inputs to meet business objectives.

This sets up a useful definition for unpaid work: Work that can take place in the context of a for-profit organization that is compensated via experience and training.

Volunteers, on the other hand, approach work without the expectation of such compensation. Fundamentally, volunteering is a selfless act that intends to benefit others, not necessarily the volunteer.

Here’s where a grey area emerges: Volunteering can help someone learn new skills or explore a field without committing to it long-term, as you might in a job or an internship. ELI Abroad puts it this way: “In general terms, volunteering is simply the act of ‘voluntarily’ giving your time and energy to help a cause. On the other hand, an internship is work that we take on in order to learn more about a given profession.” 

The difference is a matter of priority. Interns expect to learn skills. Volunteers might learn new skills, gain profitable experiences, or mentorship, but that’s not the primary motivator. Wanting to work solely for the benefit of yourself? That isn’t volunteering. 

Having a desire to benefit others (and maybe learn a few things along the way) is at the heart of what makes a volunteer special.

volunteers planting a tree; volunteer vs unpaid work concept

Volunteering and Career Development

Volunteers contribute their time in order to help others and learn about themselves on a personal and perhaps even spiritual level.

That act of self-exploration can create career benefits as well as personal benefits. In fact, career and interview coach Arnie Fertig says volunteering can help someone explore a new career path and find more success in it.

“Both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds need people with many of the same talents,” Fertig writes. “The best volunteer jobs for you to consider are ones where the experience you acquire will be applicable in the ‘for-pay’ position you want to attain.”

Volunteering also creates networking opportunities. Youth career resource Go Think Big uses the example of Alex, a young volunteer who achieved amazing career success due to his volunteer experience.

“Volunteering helped me figure out exactly what I wanted to do for a career and really helped to grow my confidence, particularly in social situations, which I always struggled with,” Alex tells them. “Now, it’s grown my networks massively and has helped me to land a phenomenal job at Think Big where I’m also getting qualified as a youth worker.” 

Growing a network, finding purpose and building confidence are just a few of the career benefits volunteering can offer.

group of volunteers holding hands; volunteer vs unpaid work concept

The Personal Impact of Volunteering

One of the reasons volunteering is so appealing to many people is flexibility. Volunteers get to work when they want, where they want, however much they want. In addition to helping out locally, volunteers can travel beyond the limits of their hometowns to explore new cultures and communities. 

Take volunteers Tom and Wade from the University of Bristol in the UK. The pair of friends joined GoodGym, a nonprofit that gets people physically active in support of local projects, Jim Connolly at the BBC writes. In addition to staying fit and helping others, Tom and Wade got the chance to help out in a different town than where they’re originally from. 

That spirit of adventure helps drive International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), which connects people to volunteer opportunities across the globe. IVHQ lets people choose trips based on either the location they want to volunteer in or the type of work they want to do. 

“The best part about it is the shared exchange that takes place,” IVHQ says. “Working in a foreign community allows you to expand your perspective on the world, learn from others and do your part to give back at the same time.”

In addition to having freedom both in terms of time and location, volunteers get to choose the nature of their work. This helps volunteers connect with organizations that truly resonate with them. 

Susan Martel, a volunteer coordination assistant at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) Denver, explains how all incoming volunteers share a mission. “Though they come with diverse backgrounds and skills, they all have one thing in common – they want to welcome newly-arrived refugees and help them thrive in their new home.”

Working alongside like-minded people to make a difference is an enriching social experience. An unpaid role or an internship isn’t necessarily going to be mission-driven and therefore might not create this same opportunity.

The Rewards For Volunteers Can Be Profound

Volunteering allows a person to explore their own inner desires. This lets the volunteer get a real feel for who they want to help, how they like to work and what they like to do in their life.

Gayle Lowery-Jones, director of operations at Hestia, says this opportunity for self-exploration had a tremendous impact on her life. “I would say that the experience I gained as a volunteer gave me so much in return that it led me to understand what I really wanted to do with my life,” she says. 

Lowery-Jones worked as a community volunteer, helping the homeless find clothes, food and shelter. In addition to helping her reach the job she has today, this volunteer experience helped Lowery-Jones narrow down what it was she wanted to do with her life. 

In a world where we’re constantly being pulled in different directions and faced with impossible standards to uphold, learning what you like to do through genuine, selfless experience is an invaluable benefit of volunteering.

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