Do we learn through volunteering?

Team Of Volunteers Picking Up Litter In Suburban StreetI’ve written a few times previously about the benefits of volunteering, both for employee productivity and engagement levels.  For instance, a study published a few years ago by a team of German researchers found that volunteering can have profound psychological benefits for those that undertake it.

There have also been claims that volunteering is a good way for employees to learn new skills, but this claim is disputed in a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Can we learn from volunteering?

The researchers gathered qualitative data from a number of employees from tech companies such as Google and Cisco about a 10-week volunteering stint they did with Citizen Schools, which tries to encourage professionals to go into schools and teach middle school children to try and bridge the opportunity gap for disadvantaged children.

When the data was analyzed, it emerged that around 1/3 of the participants reported improvements in skills such as leadership and mentorship.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more people had the opportunity to practice a skill during their volunteering, the greater improvement they saw in that skill.

Interestingly however, they also found a connection between the confidence each person had in their ability to learn new things, and the amount they ended up learning.

“As it turns out people with more confidence in their ability to improve their skills gained even more from the pre-volunteer prep courses,” the authors say. “That could be because people with high self-efficacy engage in goal setting and task planning during the prep courses. Then they use work-related skills to execute during their service experience while their less confident counterparts might be more nervous or apprehensive about trying new skills.”

What makes a good program?

The authors suggest that simply expecting volunteering programs to have the desired impact upon employee skills is a little naive.  Instead, your volunteering should fulfill three core conditions:

  1. it must engage volunteers in meaningful work
  2. the tasks should be outside of their comfort zone
  3. they should take place in a supportive environment

They caution that perhaps the majority of volunteering programs fail to offer any of these conditions, so may not have the impact it is hoped for.

The authors were much more positive about the teaching program that was under observation however.

“Some of the volunteers are IT folks who code most of the day and are used to talking with like-minded people,” they say. “All of a sudden they are teaching and mentoring middle school students in an after-hours program in what may be a challenged neighborhood – talk about being pushed beyond your comfort zone. But they know what they’re doing matters, and if they have any trouble or fall down, one of the other volunteers or a staff member from Citizen Schools who is always present will pick them up. That’s an atmosphere that fosters skill development.”

So it seems clear that there are real benefits to volunteering, but only if the program, and indeed the volunteers themselves are right.  Hopefully the lessons from this study will help guide your own volunteering efforts.


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