Community Scoop

Volunteering and Wellbeing

vnz-logoMichelle Kitney

General Manager | Volunteering New Zealand

The introduction of Treasury’s Living Standards Framework into the 2019 Budget is being greeted enthusiastically by a number of organisations including Volunteering New Zealand. The Wellbeing Budget, as it is known, will take a more holistic approach to valuing what is important to New Zealanders, including for the first time, social and environmental indicators as well as measures of economic health. Work in the area of wellbeing has become established over the last decade both internationally and in New Zealand and many of the objections and obstacles to measuring “intangibles” such as wellbeing have been overcome.

So how can volunteering contribute to wellbeing? The Living Standards Framework will measure the progress of four capitals:

  • Produced capital – infrastructure assets
  • Human capital – skills, knowledge, and human health
  • Social capital – norms and values like trust and cultural identity
  • Natural capital – the environment as a resource.

Volunteering can build value in our capital stocks in some obvious ways. For example, sports volunteering enhances the health of those who take part, while environmental volunteering helps to protect natural resources. But just about any kind of volunteering can contribute to social and human capital in the sense that volunteering is both a social interaction and an opportunity for learning and development. As opposed to traditional measures of capital, social and human capital are not depleted with use. Time spent sharing trust and knowledge are investments that can increase the total value of New Zealand’s productive resources.

Volunteering and wellbeing: the evidence

In order to study the effects of volunteering on subjective wellbeing, social scientists are careful to control for what they call “confounding” or “lurking” variables – unobserved variables that seem to suggest relationships between other variables that do not exist. For example, an increase in sales of ice cream and an increase in the murder rate over the summer months does not suggest that one causes the other. Rather, another variable, the weather, is likely to explain why ice cream sales go up.

In “Volunteering, subjective well-being and public policy”, Martin Binder, Andreas Freytag, 2012, Journal of Economic Psychology, Binder and Freytag provide a robust and causal demonstration of the impact of regular volunteering on subjective wellbeing using a large-scale data set, the British Household Panel Survey. Perhaps the main finding is that “regular volunteering significantly increases well-being” and that the “causal effect of volunteering … increases over time for individuals who continue their volunteering efforts.” Genuine volunteering – that is, volunteering that is conducted by choice not obligation – is unlikely to have negative effects. However, examples of people who benefit the most from volunteering are retired persons, the lonely or the unemployed.

Binder and Freytag test the robustness of their results by controlling for numerous “confounders” such as personality traits, social networks and trust as well as comparing across demographic slices such as gender, age, education, frequency of social contact and so on.

In addition to their main findings on wellbeing, the authors also summarize the benefits of volunteering as studied elsewhere. These studies find that volunteers report better outcomes across a number of terms related to or synonymous with wellbeing including health, social life, socio-economic prospects, happiness, positive affect for the elderly, and life satisfaction.

This article has been adapted from an article published on published by VNZ Policy Advisor, Dr Michael Schraa. Read more about the work of Volunteering New Zealand and the latest research on volunteering:


This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network. The views presented here are not necessarily those of ComVoices 

 ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community. 

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