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Heterogeneity in Volunteering

Note: This article is written with regard to ad-hoc volunteer programs, and less so with regard to long-standing, consistent volunteering commitments.

I went volunteering this past weekend for the first time since late March 2020 (around when the covid-19 pandemic began taking large swing in the U.S.).

What are the characteristics of an individual who, during a pandemic, goes to volunteer at a home for those experiencing homelessness? In my opinion, such an individual is fairly invested in volunteering in this space. But what surprised me about this session was the vast diversity of my fellow volunteers’ motivations for volunteering at the home.

A senior couple told me they were excited to give someone a meal and help contribute to the home’s rehabilitation program. They wanted to see men experiencing homelessness get an education, find a job, and obtain stable housing. The two, working with their local church, produce personal care bags handed out to those they see living on the streets. Only once has a recipient of a bag asked them for money insteadThis surprised me a lot. My first impression was this would an example of giving presumed help, not the help someone actually needs..

A lawyer 25 years my senior said she was there to say hi to the men, many of whom were now her close friends. As a side effect of her contribution for the day, she would take home the egg shells and cardboard cartons for thirty dozen eggs, which she gave to her composting and flower-growing neighbors respectively. Why was she volunteering at this home? Well, it is quite enjoyable and meaningful as a sense of community for her. In fact, aside her apartment, this is the only indoor location she has been in since the pandemic has taken large swing; she has not even ordered food in.

As for me, I came because I wanted to speak to men experiencing homelessness and learn how the pandemic has affected their livelihoods. It was my first time at this home, and I wanted to learn about the experiences of the administrators of the home, how the home operates, what the men in the home find challenging about the home’s operations, and what unique initiatives the home drives.

I list these motivations because they are very different, well-formed perspectives. Perhaps I had not noticed such diversities in reasoning in previous volunteerings, perhaps I needed a several-month break, perhaps this diversity is just characteristic to a group of individuals that would volunteer in such a time, or perhaps something else.

In previous volunteerings, I found that the motivations of my fellow volunteers were often “non-interesting” – they were there to complete a requirement, try something new, or just learn about a cause. For me, new insights and perspectives would come from those impacted by the volunteering, and rarely from my peers.

This time, I learned the most from my peers. This was such a great thing! I felt surrounded by passionate, genuinely dedicated individuals in a way that I had not before. It felt like a team in a way that I had not seen from ad-hoc volunteer programs before.

I am hungry to find more such programs. I write this as a retrospective, inviting you to find such environments as well. And if you’re already a part of one, I’d love to hear about your experience.