It is widely believed that volunteering improves people’s job prospects during economic downturns, however there is actually little research on the effect of volunteering on employment and pay – that is until now. This week not one, but two studies were released which found that volunteering increases the probability of employment of people who were not previously employed.

My study Does It Pay to Volunteer?” and a study Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment conducted by the government agency Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) both examined this issue. Both studies relied on the BLS/Census survey on volunteering and used the same general methodology. And both studies found that volunteering improved the probability of employment significantly.

The two studies covered somewhat different groups of people. The CNCS study looked at people who wanted to work at the beginning of the 12-month period, while my study looked at everyone who was not previously working, including recent graduates who were not necessarily looking for work before they volunteered. The studies also looked at different time periods – my study looked specifically at the recession years, while the CNCS study looked at a 10-year period from 2002-2012. Finally, the studies looked at different age groups – my study looked only at the working-age population defined as 20-65 years old, while the CNCS study looked at everybody over the age of 16. Despite these differences, the overall findings are similar in the two studies, lending further support to the conclusion that volunteering does improve job prospects.

However, my study went one step further, and looked not only at the event of volunteering, but also the amount volunteered. It found that the number of hours that a volunteer engages in volunteer activities does matter. For people who volunteered less than 20 hours in a year, volunteering did not improve job prospects or at best had a small effect. However, for people who volunteered between 20 to 99 hours in a year, volunteering increased the probability of landing a job by 6.8 percentage point on average.[1]  

This is not really a surprising finding, since one would not expect that volunteering for a few hours, such as washing dishes in a homeless shelter at Thanksgiving, would be associated with much skill acquisition or network building. Moreover, brief volunteering would be a weak signal to prospective employers about a person’s abilities, motivation, initiative, creativity, or reliability.

The fact that volunteering only few hours is not associated with increased employment means that people who are more committed to servicing the community through volunteering and put in a substantial number of hours face even better odds of employment than the estimates in the CNCS study imply.

The study also found that there was no effect for people who volunteered more than 100 hours. Presumably these hardcore volunteers for the most part viewed volunteering as an alternative to paid employment.