Mandatory Volunteering Proves Beneficial – Under Right Circumstances


When I first heard about mandatory volunteering in high schools about a decade ago I thought it was a real-life oxymoron. To me volunteering was only real when it was done out of a true desire to help, not out of a fear of missing requirements. I also cast a wary eye on teen volunteering that was done purely for puffing up college applications. I was doubtful that these types of volunteering had long-term positive effects on students. But recent studies have shown that under the right circumstances, mandatory volunteering actually improves the chances of future community involvement.

In Saturday’s “Shortcuts” column in the business section of the New York Times, columnist Alina Tugend did an interesting piece about the studies called, “The Benefits of Volunteerisim, If the Service is Real.” The studies found that when the volunteer jobs were meaningful – in other words, volunteers could see how their work was benefiting others – the volunteers were more likely to volunteer in the future. Even more so if the work was combined with a chance to talk about it with other students in class and talk about the greater societal issues involved. Those discussions can help students see that problems aren’t just solved through individual efforts, but also through public policy. That can lead to students who are more likely to vote and take part of the civic process in the future.

There is a danger to giving students just any volunteer job. One unpublished study found that engaging students in “busy work” can actually be detrimental to future volunteer involvement. So for example, if students were told they were going to be helping people, only to perform menial tasks that seem unrelated to actually helping others, that could lead to frustration and being turned off to volunteering in the future.

These results are good news for communities. It’s a win-win-win situation. Volunteering by students can help individuals who are on the receiving end, it can help the students to grow and change in positive ways, and it can help communities that will benefit from future involvement by the students as adults.