Volunteering during unemployment: does it lead to paid work?

Daiga Kamerāde

By Daiga Kamerāde, Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham. Daiga won the Campbell Adamson Memorial Prize for the best research paper at the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference earlier in this month.Download Daiga Kamerāde’s paper (PDF, 726KB)

Should unemployed people consider volunteering? Will it help them get a new job? The widely accepted view among voluntary organisations, policy makers, the general public and often the jobless themselves is that volunteering can have a positive impact in the search for re-employment.

The short answer is ‘it depends’. Research evidence shows the bigger picture is complex: the relationships between volunteering and getting a job are not as straightforward as many people assume. However, volunteering during unemployment brings many personal and social benefits, even if it does not lead to paid work.

Several studies show that volunteering enhances the personal skillset, attitudes and knowledge that can potentially help jobseekers in the labour market. However, as research conducted by the Third Sector Research team suggests, the effects of volunteering on employment outcomes are weak. Other factors come into play: the frequency of volunteering, age and reason for unemployment. Another study, by Andy Hurst, found that while 88% of those looking for a work believed volunteering would help them to secure paid work, only 41% who did find a job said volunteering helped them get it. Why is that?

Firstly, whether a person gets a new job or not depends not only on his or her skills and knowledge but also on a lot of other factors beyond their control and – importantly – beyond the influence of volunteering. For example, even the best volunteering programmes might have a limited effect on enhancing someone’s chances of getting back into work if there are no suitable jobs or no childcare is available so a person can take that job.

Secondly, for volunteering to have a positive impact on an unemployed person’s job prospects, they have to be presented with opportunities to get the skills and knowledge that ‘employers are crying out for’ – not just any kind of skills and knowledge (unfortunately, we still know very little about what kind of volunteering experiences employers value highly). Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect that any volunteering will get someone a job. It is likely that only specific volunteering programmes that provide skills in short supply would do that. So if you are an organisation or a policy maker developing a volunteering programme for the unemployed with the aim of enhancing their chances in the labour market, you might ask yourself this: how will this volunteering experience really help them get a job? Will it provide them with actual, sellable skills and knowledge that will make them a more attractive prospect to a potential employer?

If volunteering does not guarantee paid work, should we abandon the idea of volunteering during unemployment? Certainly not. Focusing only on the issue of employability we risk missing the wider social benefits and gains that people experience when they volunteer during periods of unemployment. Research demonstrates that volunteering has wider benefits for the unemployed and society at large than simply getting people back into work. In addition to improving people’s skills and self-confidence, volunteering enhances the national skills base and therefore contributes to economic growth.

Volunteering can serve as a meaningful alternative to paid work for individuals with disabilities, long-term illnesses and caring responsibilities. Volunteering can help them maintain their self-worth and offer them important social contact, and that can counteract the negative psychological effects of social exclusion. Volunteering in this instance can make a contribution to maintaining and increasing the national wellbeing.

So yes, we can say volunteering can help some unemployed people get a job. But there are many factors within and beyond volunteering experiences which influence whether they are successful or not in getting back into work. But as we see, there are also many additional individual and societal benefits of volunteering during unemployment that are not always apparent at first glance.

For a full review of the effects of volunteering during unemployment on employability, see Daiga Kamerāde’s paper ‘Volunteering during unemployment: more skills but where is the job?’

You can view the other papers from the conference on Google Drive.


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5 Responses to Volunteering during unemployment: does it lead to paid work?

  1. colleen says:

    While I totally agree that volunteering can help to support people who are unemployed it is not that easy to take up. When sick or unemployed you are under constant pressure to be in paid work even if it is unsustainable or not suitable. Often volunteering itself is a lengthy process and also organisations wanting volunteers want a time commitment or firm dates. This is difficult when looking for a job as one has to put work as a priority. So while it can benefit the need for many organistions these days to operate on volunteers as opposed to paid staff seems to mean they require a greater commitment. This is hard to give when the pressure to take any work , days etc available.

    I have wanted to volunteer for over 3 years but have either not heard back for months or am always at the whim of temporary pieces of work or jobs that now require total flexibility on hours so cannot make the commitment needed. Its a shame. Many people could benefit from volunteering. The routine and the involvement – feeling able to contribute I am sure are of tremendous benefit and a part of a healthy society. However, it seems the drive for more services to be run by volunteers and the utopia of zero unemployment and no sick or poor people seem to be negating each other. For example a few volunteering posts I have inquired about are to replace lost staff due to cuts and they want to ensure you are going to stay for over a year and do more than two days a week as they need to get a return on any training given. That is hard to do when you have to prioritize paid work.

    The government cannot seem to make their mind up what they want. I am opposed to people being forced to work all week for nothing for the ‘benefits’ we have paid for while working. However, I do think that working/volunteering for a day or two a week could be beneficial if it was correctly managed and involved a level of skill/career development like the apprenticeship schemes for younger people. Without the demonizing of unemployed or being treated with a workhouse and undeserving poor mentality.

    All of this needs to be balanced with the reality that money is king in our culture despite all the rhetoric about a big society. Positive benefits in the future are always deemed less worthy that a few quid in the hand and not being a ‘burden’ NOW.

    Until these issues can be addressed volunteering will not be able to truly flourish and will be the preserve of the retired and those who do not need to work.

  2. Pingback: Does volunteering help you find work? | gethyn williams

  3. U Ikpa says:

    Voluntary work can lead one to gaining experience in setting up a company. One gains experience in dealing with workers, volunteers and choosing personnel. It leads one to understand employment contract, leadership, training the unskilled and keeping up the interest to work when the opportunity comes or paid work becomes available. It can also lead to one discvering one’s talent one was unaware before doing voluntary work. It leads one to realise the difference between being an employee and being an employer and their lifestyle.

  4. Richard Hick says:

    If the volunteer is selective about the role they are seeking it can have a very positive effect on their employability. For example many first post graduation job seekers find it very hard to break through the paradox of being willing but are rejected at the first stage because they have no experience. By volunteering in their chosen area it opens them to opportunities and networks otherwise closed to them as well as adding value to their cv. It may also tell them it isn’t an area of work that would like to work in allowing them to make a soft exit without damage to a cv.

  5. Peter Halfpenny says:

    Another article on the same topic as Daiga’s will be published in the next issue of Voluntary Sector Review, the Voluntary Sector Studies Network’s journal. Angela Ellis Paine, Stephen McKay and Domenico Moro, “Does volunteering improve employability? Early insights from the British Household Panel Survey”, Voluntary Sector Review, volume 4 number 3, November 2013. If you do not know VSR, you will find information about it on the Voluntary Sector Studies Network website’s journal page (http://www.vssn.org.uk/journal) and on the publisher’s VSR page (http://www.policypress.co.uk/journals_vsr.asp).