Volunteering: What Is It?
Abstract: The volitional and economic conceptions of volunteering are reviewed. The serious leisure perspective is then discussed, including its three forms: casual leisure, project-based leisure, and the serious pursuits (its two subforms being serious leisure and devotee work). A diagram of the serious leisure perspective is presented, as are the six distinguishing qualities of the serious pursuits. Despite the reigning economic conception of volunteering, making a case for it as leisure is logically simple. If the word “volunteering” is to remain consistent with its French and Latin roots, it can only be seen, as all leisure is, as un-coerced activity. Moreover, as with all leisure, leisure volunteering can only be understood as a basically satisfying or rewarding experience, for otherwise we are forced to posit that so-called volunteers of this kind are somehow pushed into performing their roles by circumstances they would prefer to avoid - a stark contradiction of terms.
Keywords: casual leisure; devotee work; project-based leisure; serious leisure; serious leisure perspective; volunteering
Stebbins, Robert A. Leisure and the Motive to Volunteer: Theories of Serious, Casual, and Project-Based Leisure. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137585172.0004.
The author was the first to point out and discuss volunteering as serious leisure, thereby linking theoretically all of volunteering research to the more encompassing research field of leisure studies. Nonetheless, volunteering as leisure of any kind has in the past occupied a minority position in the study of this process and its volunteer participants, with the majority position being an economic one where volunteering is defined as unpaid labor. Labeled here the “volitional” and “economic” conceptions, these two will be considered in detail later. Meanwhile, note that this imbalance is changing, fueled by the string of publications to be discussed in a later section. Moreover, volunteering as leisure is not only about the serious kind - which is the main focus of this book - but also about volunteering as casual and project-based leisure. Given the relative lack of research on these latter two types, they will, however, be given much less coverage.
Despite the reigning economic conception of volunteering, making a case for it as leisure poses minimal logical difficulty. If the word “volunteering” is to remain consistent with its French and Latin roots, then it can only be seen, as all leisure is, as chosen, or un-coerced, activity. Moreover, as with all leisure, leisure volunteering can only be seen as either a basically satisfying or a basically rewarding experience, for otherwise we are forced to posit that so-called volunteers of this kind are somehow pushed into performing their roles by circumstances they would prefer to avoid - a stark contradiction of terms. The adjectives “satisfying” and “rewarding” are preferred here to such conventional leisure studies terms as “pleasurable” and “enjoyable” as descriptors for the overall experience of volunteering where, notwithstanding certain disagreeable features of the volunteer role, the volunteer finds the activity profoundly attractive on balance. (I return later to this matter of balance as it bears on volunteering and serious leisure. At that point, I present a list of rewards in which pleasure in serious leisure in general and career volunteering in particular is shown to be but one reward of many and, in most serious leisure activities, a minor reward at that.) It is considerations such as those covered in this paragraph that justify qualifying serious leisure volunteering as volitional.
Although it is true that in rare instances volunteers are paid, even beyond the expenses they incur (e.g., 3% of the sample was paid in a study conducted by Blacksell and Phillips 1994:13), these emoluments are much too small to constitute a livelihood or in themselves obligate the person in some way. Finally, it is also a fact that volunteering normally includes the clear requirement of being in a particular place, at a specified time, to carry out an assigned function. But, as Max Kaplan (1960:22-25) noted years ago, true leisure (both serious and casual) can be obligated to some extent, although certainly not to the extent typical of work.
The foregoing description of the leisure face of volunteering squares well with Jon Van Til’s (1988:6) general definition:
Volunteering may be identified as a helping action of an individual that is valued by him or her, and yet is not aimed directly at material gain or mandated or coerced by others. Thus, in the broadest sense, volunteering is an uncoerced helping activity that is engaged in not primarily for financial gain and not by coercion or mandate. It is thereby different in definition from work, slavery, or conscription.
This definition alludes to the two principal motives of volunteering. One is helping others - volunteering as altruism; the other is helping oneself - volunteering as self-interest. Examples of the latter include working for a strongly felt cause or, as we shall see later, working to experience, as serious leisure enthusiasts do everywhere, the variety of social and personal rewards available in volunteering and the leisure career in which they are framed.
Despite the theoretic compatibility of leisure and volunteering, it has been relatively rare both in leisure studies and in the study of voluntarism and citizen participation to find the two discussed together. In the first field, possibly because volunteering is seen “as somewhat more lofty than . .. the fun and frivolity often associated with leisure” (Henderson 1984:58), volunteers at the time had for the most part been ignored as subjects of research. The handful of exceptions to this indictment is considered shortly. Researchers in the second field typically look on volunteers as helpers, as people filling a distinct, contributory role in modern society, and more particularly, in certain kinds of organizations. Whether this role is work or leisure or something else had seldom stirred much interest.
We look first at volunteering as a leisure activity. Next the serious leisure perspective (SLP) is set out. The central part of this review is devoted to the various theoretic advances to the study of volunteering as leisure and to the research done in this area. We conclude with a discussion of the national and international institutional locations (including scholarly organizations) of researchers focused on this topic, as well as an assessment of the patterns throughout the world of serious leisure papers being presented at conferences and serious leisure workshops being held on volunteering.