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The Economics of A Volunteers Salary

Whilst my high school friends dedicated their afternoons and weekends to socialising and studying, I found myself juggling an A-Level workload with planting trees, knitting blanket squares, digging burrows for tuatara (ya know those reptiles John Green wrote about?), hosting bake-sales, manning sausage sizzles, and planning unit meetings for a local kids’ group... voluntarily.

Volunteering does have a cost, my limited economics knowledge (thanks, ECON110!) does highlight this: whether it be your time, resources, or petrol money. I was very, very fortunate to gain a scholarship to the value of NZ$25,000 in recognition of my community contribution and academic results, however, I understand that not everyone who selflessly volunteers their time is rewarded in such a way. For this very reason, students often shy away from voluntary roles in favour of part-time work – and I don’t blame them.

I am now well into my second year at Waikato University, New Zealand, and have limited my duties to two hours helping at youth programmes each week… except it’s not just two hours. There’re also the planning meetings, training camps, and afternoon traffic to add into the equation which I, as a rational decision-maker, must somehow equate to some pretty substantial benefits. So, what are they?

I remember sitting in a stuffy classroom in year 9 as the P.E. teacher drew a picture of a little box house on the whiteboard. She went on to explain the concept of hauora, a Māori ideology which depicts good health as a whare (meeting house), the integrity of which relies on strength from the four walls:

  1. Taha tinana (physical well-being);

  2. Taha hinengaro (mental and emotional well-being);

  3. Taha whanau (social well-being) ; and

  4. Taha wairua (spiritual well-being).

*I’ll note here that it’s not a problem if you can’t get your mouth round those words, so long as you get the gist that well-being is a holistic concept comprised of four components.

If you can construct your whare with, say, music or team sport, then great… but I was never any good at rugby! For me, my identity has been shaped by the opportunities I have been offered in exchange for my time. I’ve been encouraged to get out and about during periods when I’d otherwise be locked away 24/7 studying, been pushed to overcome fears preventing me from undertaking positions of leadership, found networks of likeminded people happy to welcome me into a new community when I left home for University, and discovered how deeply I value the gesture of helping others. Whether it’s donating blood or a tin of spaghetti, the act will in some way strengthen the structure of your whare of well-being and make volunteering worthwhile.

From my experience, I would say that one of the most attractive aspects of voluntary work is the variability it offers, and what better time to give it all a go than when you are a student. Rarely will we find ourselves in a position where we have a scattered timetable with the capability of putting ourselves forward for such a range of activities. Plus, if you do need a weekend off to attend a field trip, or decide you are only available to help out during the academic year (and need summers free to earn a little cash...!), then your teammates will be more than happy to accommodate that and still appreciate any assistance you can offer just as much.

I argue that voluntary roles do offer a salary… albeit not a conventional one, but rather in the currency of hauora. And, hey, if the possibility of a sense of pride in your own personal-development doesn’t convince you, at least it’s something to put on the CV.