What is volunteering?

Volunteering is time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain. This definition was developed by Volunteering Australia to cover a range of activities that Australians take part in. The definition was expanded upon in a series of explanatory notes.

According to Volunteering Australia:

“The term ‘volunteering’ covers a wide diversity of activities in Australian society. It includes formal volunteering that takes place within organisations (including institutions and agencies) in a structured way, and informal volunteering, acts that take place outside the context of a formal organisation.

While the vast majority of volunteering is undertaken by individuals, entities also donate employee time and this is included within this definition of volunteering.

Volunteering should not be exploitative or be used to replace paid employment. While volunteering provides substantial benefits to society, importantly it also provides significant benefits to the volunteers themselves. The personal benefits of volunteering need to be recognised and fostered.” (Volunteering Australia)

Volunteers give their time without receiving wages or salaries. However, Volunteering Australia lists a few cases where volunteers may receive money as part of their volunteering role:

  • “Volunteers can receive reimbursement of out of pocket expenses.
  • Volunteers can be rewarded and recognised as part of good practice. While this process may introduce an element of financial or material benefit to the volunteer it does not exclude the activity from being considered volunteering.
  • Volunteers may receive an honorarium, stipend or similar payment as recognition for voluntary services or professional services voluntarily rendered, in accordance with Australian Taxation Office rulings. Based on the nature of such payments and the recipient’s circumstances, the receipt of this type of payment does not preclude the person from being considered a volunteer.” (Volunteering Australia)

“This definition aligns with the United Nations view that volunteering ‘should be for the common good. It should directly or indirectly benefit people outside the family or household or else benefit a cause, even though the person volunteering normally benefits as well.’1
Volunteering is often considered as contributing to community wellbeing and volunteering activities cover all sectors of society, leisure and hobby areas and include, but are not limited to:

  • Animal-related including animal welfare
  • Arts/heritage/culture
  • Business/professional/union
  • Education and training
  • Emergency services
  • Environment
  • Faith-based
  • Health
  • International aid/development
  • Law/justice/political
  • Parenting, children and youth
  • Sport and physical recreation
  • Welfare/community (Volunteering Australia

Volunteering should benefit society or contribute to the wellbeing of community members. Volunteers shouldn’t profit financially from their work, nor should the work of volunteers be exploited for private profit.

Activism can be considered volunteering. This definition is aligned to the current United Nations position on volunteering that states: ‘When people participate in peaceful activism, for or against animal research or building of a dam, both sides seek what they consider to be beneficial outcomes. They are included in our definition. Activities involving or inciting violence that harm society and actions not corresponding to the values attributed to volunteerism are not included in our definition’.1

Volunteers cannot be exploited for profit.

Volunteering can include the concept of reciprocity such as participating in groups where a reciprocal exchange of help/services is undertaken for the benefit of others as well as the volunteer.

  1. “United Nations (2022). State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, 2011: Universal Values for Global Well-being. United Nations Volunteers, P4.” (Volunteering Australia)

Volunteers can receive many benefits from their participation, including benefits that have financial value. For example: a volunteer may perform yard work for a local community group and receive membership in community activities in return. In this case, both services benefit the community, so this is a volunteer role. 

Time willingly given

Volunteering Australia does not expand upon the meaning of the phrase ‘time willingly given’ in the definition. However, the key theme is that volunteers perform their roles by choice.

Volunteers may choose to give their time for personal reasons, like making friends and gaining experience, or to contribute to a cause or movement greater than themselves. Volunteers are free to leave their role at any time, however they may continue volunteering as long as it aligns with their values, beliefs and ability to contribute.  

What is not volunteering?

“The following areas are not considered to meet each of the core requirements of volunteering (‘without financial gain’, ‘willingly given’ and ‘for the common good’) and hence are not included in this definition of volunteering. It is acknowledged that many of these have a constructive, positive and vital role in society and may exist alongside volunteering and / or provide a pathway into volunteering.” (Volunteering Australia)

Household and family responsibilities

“Direct family responsibilities are excluded. It is recognised that direct familial relationships vary for different people and social groups and so this is open to individual interpretation. In addition, foster carers have many similarities with volunteers, but because of the family relationship, these are outside this definition of volunteering.” (Volunteering Australia)

Everyone’s family is different, but in most cases, work done around the house is not included in the definition of volunteering. Examples of this type of work include doing domestic chores and caring for family members or other people in the same household. These activities are undertaken willingly and without financial reward, but they don’t directly benefit the broader community. 

Mandatory Activities

“A number of programs are highly structured, with fixed requirements and provide options of volunteering type activities but with limited choice and/or varying types of in-built financial or reward outcomes. These vary widely and are excluded from this definition. Examples include:

  • Compulsory educational service learning (where students are required to volunteer as part of a course)
  • Mandated court orders including community service and fines
  • Internships
  • Formal work experience / vocational placements
  • Mandatory government programs
  • Limited choice labour market government programs” (Volunteering Australia)

Internships, accredited training and work experience are not considered to be volunteering. This is because they directly advance financial and reward-based outcomes. 


“Volunteering requires a donation of time. Other types of donating such as giving money or materials and donating blood are not considered volunteering, although it is acknowledged there is a time element required in these forms of donating.” (Volunteering Australia)

Donating money or supplies isn’t included in the definition of volunteering. Donations are made for the common good and without financial gain, but they don’t involve the donor giving a significant amount of their time. However, volunteers may also donate to the causes they volunteer for. Also, a volunteer may incur expenses in the course of their volunteering work, which is spent to benefit the community. 

Employment or work as an independent contractor 

Working as a contractor or employee does not count as volunteering unless the company has donated the worker’s time to benefit the community. This is because employees and contractors are paid for their work: they work for financial gain. For more information on these distinctions, please refer to this guide by Justice Connect


A sub-committee of researchers on the national steering committee, produced an issues paper to provide stakeholders with an understanding of the dimensions of volunteering both here in Australia and globally.

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