Is Mandatory Volunteering Really an Oxymoron?

Is required or mandatory volunteering - often called community service - really an oxymoron?

Jumbo shrimp.

It’s often called “community service,” and it’s a requirement for many high school and college students, depending on their programs, as well as individuals who have received court-ordered service for breaking the law.

We can debate all day about the pros and cons of creating a culture of requirement and punishment around giving back. But since I’m sure you’re as busy as I am right now, let’s skip past the ideological elements and focus on what’s relevant for your day-to-day work.

Many of us might instinctively feel wary of volunteers who are required to show up. Logic suggests they won’t be as engaged or connected to the cause, that they’ll only do the bare minimum, or that they will simply count down their hours and then disappear.

Logic, however, often doesn’t apply when it comes to the emotional connection volunteers form with a cause or organization. Bottom line: Just because they are required to start volunteering does not mean they won’t become dedicated supporters down the road.

The worst mistake you can make is treating these volunteers any differently than those who are not doing “community service.” In fact, you should take special care to show them the impact they can make during their time with you, and how much you appreciate their work.

And when their mandatory volunteering time is over, invite them to stick around. Offer them more responsibility; show them how easy it could be to make this a permanent, rewarding part of their lives. And eventually, you’ll both realize that it doesn’t matter why they started volunteering – it only matters why they continue.

Have you worked with “mandatory” volunteers? Tell us about it below!

26 thoughts on “Is Mandatory Volunteering Really an Oxymoron?

  1. Some of my most rewarding experiences as a Volunteer Manager were engaging with “voluntolds” that stayed on to become regular volunteers. We all take different paths in life, and I believe we always have the potential to make a positive impact. Sure, I had some community service individuals that didn’t care about dedicating more than the required amount of hours, but everyone that did stay on left a positive impression that far outweighed anyone that didn’t.

    • Thanks for sharing John – it’s important to remember that as volunteer managers we’re all going to interact with a huge variety of people, so we shouldn’t generalize. Also, love the word “voluntolds!”

  2. A young woman who had been assigned to work at our warehouse facility, when she completed her mandatory work, came to me with tears in her eyes to say that when she began her work she was on the verge of committing suicide. Treating her just like every other volunteer made her comfortable at her work, valued as a volunteer, and kept her returning to help.
    A court-assigned teenager began her work reluctantly but upon completing her assignment brought a donation after cleaning her room at home saying that she knew our warehouse would do the right thing with her donated items.
    Two sisters who began a school mandated service project with us returned for several summers because they enjoyed working in our office.

  3. I have good and bad experiences with mandatory volunteers in our Adult Education classes. We had a high school teacher that encouraged volunteering. Some of our best volunteers for ESL came from her classes and they were faithful volunteers until they had to go on to college. There were high school students who were so busy with other activities that they did not stay connected.

    It has been harder with court ordered community service. One person stayed for a few months and made a big impact while she was here. Another person was just here to put in her time and did not do well.

    I was encouraged by this article though not to give up.

    • Hi Sara – thanks for sharing! Yes, if there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s that there’s no shortage of dedicated, amazing volunteers out there – it’s just a matter of finding them!

  4. Frankly, Mandatory Volunteer’s have their own problems and it’s sometimes to difficult to grasp. There should always be a Supervisor. Things Can and probably will get carried away. At least in My own Experience.

  5. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Ghandi
    When a person is required to complete community service there will always be an initial resistance to serving above and beyond but if the organization begins to cultivate a relationship that inspires the person to continue, this give the individual the opportunity to become an active citizen.

    • Hi Charkivia – absolutely, thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s important to remember the responsibility and opportunity an organization and a volunteer manager has to inspire people to be involved.

  6. Since we are primarily a food shelf and do not work with “vulnerable populations” we are one of the area’s few places who will take someone doing community service.

    I am always respectful, and I am very clear about our rules as they apply to students and CS folks. They are: No no-shows or late-shows, and only one rescheduling event allowed, otherwise they cannot return. This makes it very clear from the beginning that we take the choice between volunteering, as opposed to jail time or monetary fines, as a serious commitment. Beyond that, at the site, they are treated no differently than anyone else.

    What we have found is that many CS folks return as “personal interest” volunteers after time served because they feel welcomed, appreciated, respected, valued, and part of a dynamic and necessary team of people doing good things.

    Having someone smile at you and glad to see you can do wonders for a person’s outlook on life!

  7. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana from 1967 – 1970. Some of the PCVs in my group volunteered to avoid the draft. Because I had been drafted and served two years in the Army before going into the Peace Cops, they asked: “What are you doing here, you already served your time?” As I remember it, those “draft dodgers” served as well as the rest of us. We are still looking for short-term volunteers to work with us at a rehab facioity in Ghana. Check us out at

    Dan O’Laughlin

  8. I’ve had the opposite experience. I volunteered for a couple of weeks with a food pantry. I didn’t return after the first couple of weeks because as soon as they found out that I was there for school and needed some form of documentation, they started treating me like crap. No one talked to me after that, people who had been warm and inviting only minutes before, ignored me when I tried to spark up a conversation. If I asked a question, they were really rude about it. I quit volunteering there and took my time and commitment elsewhere.

  9. My personal goal is to establish multiple businesses eventually including areas such as service, retail, food service, etc (I’m definitely still in the brain storming stage) however one of the things I considered is whatever field I am in the hours to be worked will be reasonable such as 11-7 but employees shall be encouraged to volunteer to promote local community involvement just as a new concept. I’m just not sure how receptive workers will be of that…and if the general public would even see it as a good thing? My ultimate vision is to establish work places for individuals and encourage awareness and involvement in the community and provide work hours for individuals so they can focus on their own personal dreams, spend quality time with their families, and give back to the community as I believe most people would use “having no time” as the reason why they don’t volunteer. What do you think?

    • Hi Sharon – It’s a wonderful idea! VolunteerMatch works with many companies who encourage their employees to give back. In fact, it’s becoming more common now for companies to provide a certain amount of paid time off for volunteering. And, of course, many businesses also organize special volunteering events for their employees that help them give back and build teamwork.

  10. Yes. I volunteered for many different organizations through the years. And I have found in the past ten to fifteen years the mandatory volunteers have really hurt how I have been treated. I had one experience where another volunteer actually asked me what I ‘did’ to have to do the work. I asked her what she meant and she explained that she was doing community service. I was just giving my time. So I became more aware of how I was treated as a volunteer, which has been changing. Thanks so very much for putting this article out there, and for those who organize volunteers, please remember this.

  11. We have had several community service people who have continued to volunteer once their “time” was up. Just as many disappear never to be seen again though. The funniest part was when one of our regular volunteers wound up having court-ordered community service requirement and he was already volunteering that much in a week every week and had for years.

    • Hi Kim,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s true that each individual’s situation will be different – which is why it’s so important not to generalize just because someone is ordered to be spending their time with you!

      Keep up the great work!

  12. I’ve had a few people write me for online volunteering opportunities to fulfill mandatory community service, through courts or schools. I ask them to get confirmation such will be accepted from the person who assigned those hours, give them necessary documentation to prove this is “real” volunteering, and then get them started. Every one of the court-ordered folks have stayed WELL beyond the # of hours they needed for the courts – and I attribute that to me treating them just like any other volunteer.

    • Jayne – thanks for sharing! It’s great to hear from an experienced volunteer coordinator and expert in this field that these strategies are important for online volunteering, as well!

  13. The volunteers who come here for school-required hours have a large list of “volunteer sites” to choose from, and they choose US. Therefore, they are valued just as much as anyone else who walks through our door. Because we are a Medicare-licensed agency and our volunteers go into patients’ homes, all volunteers have to undergo a thorough background check – which often will preclude a “community service” volunteer. But if they can pass the background check (which includes drug-testing), then they are welcomed as well.

    • Hi Joanne – thanks for sharing! It’s great to hear how you’re able to engage all sorts of volunteers, even with the additional steps of the background check. Important for other organizations to hear and be encouraged, too.