We support volunteering because of its positive impacts on good causes and on the volunteers themselves, but by doing so we hope we are also making a small contribution to building a more positive, happier and richer society as a whole.

29 October 2020 | Uncategorised | Back to Blog

How volunteering helps everyone – not just the beneficiaries

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

Supporting volunteering has always been central to Dot Dot Dot’s work – and our focus on it is something we are never asked to justify.   No one needs an academic paper to tell them that it’s worthwhile to support people who’d like to do good for others. And it’s easy to see that volunteers keep a huge range of worthwhile organisations going, from household names like the Samaritans and the St John’s Ambulance through to small local food banks and sports clubs.

But the indirect benefits to society as a whole of volunteering, neighbourliness and civic engagement go way beyond the benefits to individuals in need who receive help from volunteers, or to the volunteers themselves who get satisfaction from doing it.  People living in societies with more volunteering, more social connections and higher trust tend to be happier and wealthier, so participation deserves to be measured, celebrated and promoted for these reasons too.

Most current discussion of the benefit of living in a community where people are engaged – either by volunteering formally, getting involved in neighbourhood groups or helping others informally – traces back to Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, published in 2000.  In it, he argued that social capital is essential to a well-functioning democracy, and defined it as “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them”. 

He also drew a clear link between the frequency with which people get involved in third-sector activities and organisations, and higher levels of trust and social capital.  As he put it, ‘‘civic engagement and trust are mutually reinforcing’’ and ‘‘the causal arrows among civic involvement…and social trust are as tangled as well-tossed spaghetti’’. 

While it usually takes a certain amount of trust and positivity to start volunteering or to get involved with a club or society in the first place, Putnam’s point is that doing so creates a virtuous spiral – the more you participate, the more positive you feel about others because you have more good experiences and you benefit from more reciprocity.  And this in turn makes you more likely to believe that most people are basically trustworthy, which encourages you to participate more.

This is good for individuals. Sociological research repeatedly shows that higher social trust is correlated with higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction and subjective wellbeing, and we frequently hear from our guardians that their volunteering is positive for them as well as helpful to the causes they give their time to.  

But it’s also good for society as a whole.  Work by Marta Portela and others in the journal, Social Indicators Research, shows that the higher the level of social capital a country has on average, the more likely individuals in that country are to be happy and satisfied with their lives.  And these benefits occur even for those who don’t participate regularly – if you live around others who get involved and have a good opinion of their fellow citizens, your life is probably better too. 

It also makes us all richer.  A country’s average levels of social trust predicts its economic growth more accurately than its average skill levels, according to Dr David Halpern, the Chief Executive of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team.  As he puts it, “Low trust implies a society where you have to keep an eye over your shoulder; where deals need lawyers instead of hand-shakes; where you don’t see the point of paying your tax or recycling your rubbish (since you doubt your neighbour will do so); and where you employ your cousin or your brother-in-law to work for you rather than a stranger who would probably be much better at the job.”  All of that makes life less enjoyable – but it also makes it more expensive and holds back innovation and entrepreneurship, making countries who lack social trust poorer too.

So even though most people who get involved in formal or informal volunteering do it because they want to help a specific cause and because they enjoy it, by doing so they are also making everyone a bit more likely to be happy and wealthy.  We support volunteering because of its positive impacts on good causes and on the volunteers themselves, but by doing so we hope we are also making a small contribution to building a more positive, happier and richer society as a whole.

You can find out more about our commitment to supporting the volunteering efforts of our guardians here, and read more of our guardian stories here.