Why do people volunteer?

I have to be honest. I am not a volunteer. At least, I’m not a volunteer yet. I am a young, single woman with no children and no ties to public schools besides that I live and work near one. I have been employed by public school districts and now by Texas PTA but in full disclosure, they pay me to be here. In a conversation with Kelley Thomas (President of Plano ISD Council of PTAs), she told me that she volunteers not just for PTA but a number of other organizations and for nearly 60 hours per week. Forty of those hours are with PTA. I couldn’t believe it. Why work for free? Why give away your most valuable resource (time) every day FOR FREE?

The membership of Texas PTA shocks me. In my role, I often interact with our Board of Directors and other leaders. These people are what I call mega-volunteers. They take service to some kind of extreme — advocating, traveling, counseling, and meeting almost every day just to help PTA operate.

“It is an American custom to spend most of our adult lives finding ways to turn our talents into money.”

Human Capital

When you go to a job interview, the hiring party often asks two types of questions: What do you know how to do? and What kind of person are you?

This same concept could be applied to volunteerism. But in this case, it is you who hires yourself. In a 2010 article on organizational behavior, volunteering is characterized in three ways:

1.“The volunteer must seek out the opportunity to help”
2.“The volunteer arrives at a decision to help after deliberation, and
3.“The decisions about beginning to help and continuing to help are influenced by whether or not the activity fits with the volunteers’ own needs and goals” (Lavelle)

As a young parent, Kelley Thomas knew she would join a PTA but didn’t yet have any plans to be a leader. When dropping her daughter off at kindergarten, another parent considering the role of “Room Mom” said, “I’ll do it if you do it.” The rest was history.

So many PTA parents have a similar story. You think, ‘I like my kids and I like the school, so why not?’

At PTA meetings, you might have heard that they needed a Treasurer, Parliamentarian, and a Social Chair. So you asked yourself, ‘Am I the kind of person that would offer something to this PTA? Do I know how to do anything that would allow me to contribute? Do I care enough to get involved?’

If you are like the PTA volunteers I have met, you jump in headfirst employing all of your talents to help your kids, the school, teachers, and other parents.

It is an American custom to spend most of our adult lives finding ways to turn our talents into money. In fact, most of us have to. This is called Human Capital (what do I know how to do?). We pour money into education and training and then go through the heartbreaking procedure of finding work. When we get the work, then we spend our time and talents climbing the ranks (hopefully toward more money).

When you volunteer, the energy is still spent but the money goes somewhere else. So what motivates people to donate their Human Capital to an organization?

Well, it depends. Age, employment, family structure, demographics, and health are all predictors of where and how people will volunteer (Carr). For example, middle-aged people are more likely to engage heavily in community-oriented and youth-oriented volunteering. What’s more, people with children, partnered or not, are about 1.75 times more likely to engage in youth-oriented volunteering (Carr).

Social Capital

It also depends on several prosocial aspects. For example, some people join a volunteer-based organization for the socialization, the sense of community, or the service-learning opportunity (Stukas). Here’s where Social Capital comes in (what kind of person are you?).

Social Capital encompasses a much broader spectrum of skills. We all have it on some level. This could mean being purposefully influential, supportive, having numerous connections, or a great reputation. These can all be applied to pursuing a paying job and that’s why so many employers ask both of those questions ㄧ What do you know how to do? and What kind of person are you?

For people with high Social Capital, volunteering, fundraising, and leading come natural. They make fast friends, can usually convince anyone into anything, and the good ones use their personalities to help kids, raise funds, and give back.

For the most part, people with high Social Capital find ways to embrace others and be helpful … that’s why so many of them volunteer.

One study suggests that when people live in an area where the trust level is high (that is trust in the community), social capital becomes more important and volunteerism levels rise (Glanville et. al.). So depending on the community, individual Social Capital could grow as belief in the people around us grows.

It makes sense that as people have children (or come to work at or near schools), they enter into a trusting group of parents, staff, and community and Social Capital skyrockets.

In 1740, philosopher David Hume wrote, “Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow.” This is a perfect example of Social Capital and a reference to what occurs in PTAs every day.

To apply David Hume’s words, I’ll help take care of your kid today, because I know you’ll be helping take care of my kid tomorrow. We need each other.

Two Reasons

About two-thirds of volunteers report having two or more important motives for volunteering (Clary & Snyder). One is usually human and one social. The human reason is likely the same for most. You love your kids and you care about the school they go to.

The first reason can be a little self-serving. In the early years, it might be all about my kid and my school.

Kelley says her second reason became clear to her when she participated in Texas PTA’s Emerging Leaders Academy. Through higher-level learning, she realized, “Every kid can use an advocate.” With her background in education and training, her volunteerism found a new application.

She saw the tangible ways that advocacy spreads far beyond the local level.

“[PTA] is important for all kids, not just my kid,” she said.

Why do you volunteer?

As we’ve learned, people are capable to volunteer in a number of ways. Volunteers invest in each other to transcend an individualistic culture and to make much of community trust.

So whether PTA is your only volunteer commitment or your tenth, what are your two reasons?


Carr, D. C., King, K., & Matz-Costa, C. (2015). Parent–Teacher Association, Soup Kitchen, Church, or the Local Civic Club? Life Stage Indicators of Volunteer Domain. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 80(4), 293–315. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091415015603608

Clary, E.G., & Snyder, M. (1999). The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 156-159.

Glanville, J. L., Paxton, P., & Wang, Y. (2016). Social Capital and Generosity: A Multilevel Analysis. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45(3), 526–547. https://doi.org/10.1177/0899764015591366

Helene Jorgensen, 2013. “Does It Pay to Volunteer? The Relationship Between Volunteer Work and Paid Work,” CEPR Reports and Issue Briefs 2013-10, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

Lavelle, James. (2010). What motivates OCB? Insights from the volunteerism literature. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 31. 918 – 923. 10.1002/job.644.

Stukas, Arthur & Snyder, Mark & Clary, E. (2016). Understanding and encouraging volunteerism and community involvement. The Journal of social psychology. 156. 243-255. 10.1080/00224545.2016.1153328.

Magen Davis

Magen Davis served as Texas PTA's Director of Events & Programs. She completed her bachelor and master's degrees at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she studied public relations, journalism, and history.