Volunteering and leisure

Dr Kristen Holmes, Curtin University

Volunteering is presented as one of the three ways of thinking about leisure by Rochester et al (2010). The idea of volunteering as a form of leisure contradicts much of the discussion that takes place within Australia of volunteering as a form of unpaid work but it has been an established idea within leisure research groups for many years (see Stebbins, 2004). Leisure shares many characteristics with volunteering, most importantly that both are undertaken by choice and in free time that is time free from paid work and other obligations. While many forms of volunteering take place in leisure contexts such as coaching sport, giving museum tours or surf life-saving, leisure volunteering is about how the participant experiences the activity, not the activity itself. One study has found, for example, volunteer firefighters to be experiencing their volunteering as a form of leisure (Arai, 1997).

Within leisure research there is the concept of casual and serious leisure – e.g. how far does the leisure activity involve any form of effort, skill or knowledge? Casual leisure could be watching TV, for example, while serious leisure is described as ‘the systematic pursuit of…a hobby…or a volunteer activity sufficiently substantial and interesting in nature for the participants to find a (non-work) career’ (Stebbins, 2004, p5). Serious leisure requires effort by the participants which can occasionally lead to perseverance and demands that participants acquire skills and knowledge to be able to engage in the activity.

Thinking about volunteering as leisure changes the way we think volunteers should be recruited, managed and rewarded. Leisure volunteers are likely to be attracted to volunteer at organisations and in roles which will satisfy their motivations for skills development, social contact with like-minded people and to spend time either in a place or doing an activity that they enjoy. As stated before, this can be at leisure-oriented organisations, like sports clubs or a zoo, but will not always be the case. The management of leisure volunteers needs to involve organising the activity and necessary training to capitalise on the volunteers’ leisure motivations. Leisure volunteers are often keen to learn more about their activity or organisation and are willing to spend considerable time outside the organisation studying on their own – we see this with tour guides, who spend time and effort researching their tours. Rewards need to be consistent with their motivation as leisure volunteers. For example, in a museum this might include the opportunity to see behind the scenes or meet the curators. Training sessions can actually form part of the rewards, particularly if they bring a group of volunteers together.

Like other forms of volunteering, leisure volunteering is changing. Contemporary Western societies report both reduced time for volunteering and leisure. Any reduction in time available will increase the expectations volunteers may have of their experience and the competition for volunteers’ time from other (leisure) activities. Another trend is the growth in episodic volunteering. This can be equated with a third form of leisure identified by Stebbins: project-based leisure (Stebbins, 2005). Project-based leisure is similar to serious leisure but takes place over a finite period. In leisure, as in volunteering, participants are eschewing the traditional long-term career in favour of shorter, fixed term leisure and volunteer experiences.


Arai, S. (1997). Volunteers within a changing society: the uses of empowerment theory in understanding serious leisure. World Leisure and Recreation 39, 19-22.

Rochester, C., Ellis Paine, A. and Howlett, S. with Zimmeck, M. (2010). Volunteering and society in the 21st Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Stebbins, R. (2004). Introduction. In R. Stebbins & M. Graham. (2004). Volunteering as leisure, leisure as volunteering: an international assessment. Wallingford: CABI, (pp 1-12).

Stebbins, R. (2005). Project-based leisure: Theoretical neglect of a common use of free time. Leisure Studies, 24(1), 1-11.