Volunteer vibes: The feel-good appeal of lending a hand

Volunteering your time is a gift to your community that will also give back to you – a thousand times over.

As well as being a month filled with festive cheer, December is also the time we can cheer on and thank our volunteers for the unpaid work they do in bettering their communities, helping others and generally giving back.

Through International Volunteer Day, we can acknowledge the 5 million Australians that Volunteering Australia chief executive Mark Pearce says donate their time through organisations and groups in communities each year.

The new type of volunteering

Research from Volunteering Australia has found the rates of volunteering through an organisation have declined over time for adults — down from 36.2 per cent in 2010 to 28.8 per cent in 2019.

However, Mark says volunteering is increasing outside of organisations, which is known as informal volunteering.

“People are saying, ‘There’s an issue with the environment in our local community; let’s get together and clean up the riverbed’ — something of that nature,” Mark says.

“This type of informal volunteering particularly appeals to a younger demographic who are more inclined to get involved in causes they’re interested in and who are looking for flexibility with their volunteering.”

Why people volunteer

At Big Group Hug, a Melbourne-based not-for-profit focused on children and families, it is the social aspect, as well as the desire to help, that often draws volunteers in.

“Our volunteers feel fulfilled that they are making a difference, building social networks and having a space that is theirs — separate to their home and work life or existing social network — where they can be proud of their contribution,” the organisation’s Maria Quigley says.

“Parents and grandparents that volunteer with Big Group Hug are often appreciative of the support they received while raising their own children and they want to help families that don’t have that level of support,” Maria adds.

The charity also welcomes workplace volunteering, an exercise in both giving back and team building.

The end of year is an especially busy time for Big Group Hug.

“Our volunteers work extra shifts in our warehouse to process as many requests for support as possible ahead of the Christmas break,” Maria says.

“Our aid packs include clothing, infant formula, prams, bedding, toys and more. Our volunteers also prepare toy and clothes packs in time for Christmas so children have something to cherish during the festive season.”

The benefits of volunteering

While volunteering is altruistic in nature, it also gives back to those who give their time.

A 2023 review in Voluntas journal reported volunteering had many mental, physical and social health benefits.

It also found that older volunteers reaped the greatest health benefits.

Volunteering Australia partnered with the Australian National University to understand the impact of volunteering during lockdowns.

“People who were able to continue to volunteer during the lockdown had better mental health outcomes and better connections to community,” Mark says.

He adds volunteering reflects what is close to our heart and the society we want to live in.

“Volunteering, in so many ways, is an expression of aspiration — it’s about the things that are important to us,” Mark says.

“It’s about the communities in which we live and how we want them to look tomorrow.”

Where should I volunteer?

Seek’s Volunteer website allows you to search for a volunteer role by your interests, such as animal welfare, museums and heritage, LGBTIQA+ or sport.

You can also search by your level of involvement, whether it be for a one-off event or regular commitment.

With the rates of informal volunteering growing, also keep an eye out on your local community’s Facebook page for opportunities to lend a hand, or you may even want to organise your own event.

More ways to make a difference and be happy:
The proven reasons you should be kind to other
Chasing happiness won’t make you happy. Do this instead
6 Costa Rican secrets to a life of happiness
Why purpose boosts health and happiness
Written by Samantha Allemann.