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How We Define "Volunteer" for Energize...and What Is Not Volunteering to Us

By Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

What is volunteering?  Who's a volunteer?

There are many definitions, but no universal agreement. The following is what Energize uses as a working definition for this Web site.

Volunteer, verb - To choose to act in recognition of a need, with an attitude of social responsibility and  without concern for monetary profit, going beyond one's basic obligations. 

This definition is from the Introduction to  By the People:  A History of Americans as Volunteers by Susan J. Ellis and Katherine H. Campbell. But it is not enough to only consider the verb form.  Add the noun form, too:

Volunteer, noun – from the perspective of the doerSomeone who gives time, effort and talent to a need or cause without profiting monetarily.

Volunteer, noun – from the perspective of the recipient of serviceSomeone who contributes time, effort and talent to meet a need or further a mission, without going on the payroll.

For many more definitions and commentary, including legal/governmental definitions from several countries, see Definitions.

What is not labeled “volunteering,” but actually does fit the definition above?

Many things!  Look at the “Map of the Volunteer World.

What is called "volunteer" but is NOT part of volunteering as defined here?

  • The “All-Volunteer Army”

The US military has a long tradition of using the word volunteer to mean voluntary, non-draft, uncoerced service, but the soldiers are fully salaried once they are inducted.  Historically, “volunteer militias” may have been both non-draft and non-paid (no one is paid to rebel!), but only until funds were available.  Note that there is irony here, too, since countless soldiers learned the mantra “never volunteer!” as self-protection.

  • Medical “volunteers”

Again, the medical field relies on voluntary participation in drug and treatment trials, where the consequences may be risky, but more often than not the subjects are paid money.

  • Not everything that’s voluntary is volunteering, particularly in a free society.  A few examples:

In most cases, you can freely choose your friends, your job, your school, your place of worship.

You can join a club, an association, a recreational sports team.  Being a member is not, in and of itself, volunteering, although it is voluntary.  However, if you become an officer, chair a committee, or give time to a project, you do become a “volunteer” as defined on this site.

  • Service done without remuneration, but within the reasonable expectations of being a family member.

Such as caring for a sick child or aging parent.

  • Service done without remuneration, but within the reasonable expectations of being a citizen in a democratic country.

Such as voting and paying taxes.

  • When an airline agent asks for “volunteers” to give up their tickets on an overbooked plane in exchange for a free ticket anywhere on the system.

  • Natives of Tennessee or players on Tennessee sports teams (all called Volunteers).

  • Plants that grow where they wish, called “volunteers” in gardening.


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