Service & Outcomes: What does the evidence tell us about volunteers?

“But does it really make a difference?”

This important question is at the center of the impressive anti-amateurs-in-international-service literature, which begins with Ivan Illich, is carried forward and integrated with study abroad concerns by Tayla Zemach Bersin, and has most recently been picked up by Pippa Biddle. This line of critique is sometimes paralleled in discussions of US domestic service-learning and volunteering programming. Young people doing “service” may be:

  • under-prepared or unprepared for the task at hand. If that’s the case, repercussions can include poor quality of service delivery (Vital note: don’t let “repercussions” be a euphemism. There are clear examples of everything from pre-professional medical volunteers giving the wrong medical advice to “educational interventions” that waste volunteers’ and students’ time and “relationships” that are psychologically damaging for vulnerable people);
  • undermining stability or capacity development for the local community organization or schools where they work, by representing quick, outside-driven fixes that are not sustainable (This concern is central to many of the critiques of Teach for America, which emphasize that TFA teachers only sign-on for two years);
  • taking jobs away from experienced professionals and de-professionalizing fields that otherwise have clear standards and evidence-based methods (such as education, social work, community development, international development, and public health).

These concerns must be taken seriously – and to take them seriously we must be able to say what we mean when we claim to “make a difference” or “serve”. One of the early voices in the service-learning movement, Nadinne Cruz, suggests that service is “a process of integrating intention with action, in the context of a movement toward a just relationship.” One thing this quote surfaces is that much of the thinking behind service-learning goes well beyond the notion of delivering some direct outcome to a community member or community organization. There’s a notion of moving toward just relationships – moving toward justice. But it isn’t enough to merely claim this aspiration – and sharing vague claims about future justice should not justify volunteer interventions that are bad for communities right now. So what can we say about what volunteers do?

Clarifying Concepts

Two things are helpful to note here: One, I’ve been using “service-learning”, “service”, “volunteer”, and “volunteering” rather interchangeably. That’s because the research in this area suggests that community organizations – in the US or abroad – tend not to differentiate between individuals who are there as part of a credit-bearing course and individuals who are there “simply to serve.” Second, Morton’s typology of service – charity, project, and social change – which is paralleled in many ways by conceptualizations of development (e.g. by Korten or Farmer) is helpful as we move from Cruz’s broad conceptualization of service toward attempting to be clear about whether we do what we say:

  • Charity – This is what many people refer to as “direct service.” There is an effort to offer immediate relief through individual relationships. People who volunteer to serve food in a soup kitchen are clearly engaging this kind of service. Often individuals are engaged in direct service that is actually part of a larger project focus.
  • Project – When individuals reference “capacity-building”, they are typically referencing an approach to service that fits into this category. A project approach works to identify discrete social problems, develop solutions, and implement those solutions on a defined schedule. An individual or a team who cooperated with a soup kitchen to update their website, improve their supply chain, develop their fundraising plan, or design a social enterprise model for their work, would be undertaking project-based service.
  • Social Change – In Morton’s typology, this is service that focuses on structural changes in the social system. It is the space of activism and advocacy. To continue with the soup kitchen example, this is the work of organizing a hunger banquet to raise awareness and spark dialogue on hunger, advocating for higher wage minimums, advocating for social rights broadly, or raising awareness about the differences between means-tested benefits systems that we typically have in the US, or the more universal approach often employed in Europe.

One of the sources of critique of service-learning and volunteerism juxtaposes the often-asserted goal of “social change” or “social justice” with charity work done in isolation from structural analysis and absent effort to build capacity (For a recent example of this line of critique, see Voluntourism as Neoliberal Humanitarianism). That is a fine critique and I agree with many aspects of it. In my view service should always engage critically reflective practice that explores and ultimately works to change oppressive, historically determined social structures. Yet it is also worth asking whether or in what ways charity and project service accomplish their stated goals.

Measuring Outcomes 

The New York Times Fixes blog recently considered volunteers as an untapped force in the fight for literacy. They looked at the outcomes data on two programs in particular. One is described here:

Minnesota Reading Corps, which started in 2003, uses AmeriCorps volunteers (they receive a stipend from the federal government) as full-time or half-time tutors. Full-time tutors who work with children in kindergarten through third grade have a caseload of 15 to 20 students at a time.

This seems like an interesting integration of direct service on the part of the individual tutor, coupled with a state-wide project effort, all designed to enhance the capacity of young Minnesota readers. The volunteers are not trained teachers. They get three days of training, along with regular coaching throughout their tutoring commitment. These unskilled (in terms of teacher certification or significant literacy training) volunteers are coming to an existing, systematic structure, being exposed to brief training, and getting results. From the Times article:

Kindergarten children in the program learned twice as many letter sounds in 16 weeks as children in a control group (the reading effects diminished for each grade after kindergarten) and it worked for even the most disadvantaged.

The same article also profiled another program with a large data set on volunteer tutoring and saw literacy gains there as well. In other words, with training, supervision, and support, volunteers can contribute meaningfully to young people’s literacy development. Volunteers, of course, should be used in support of – and never in place of – trained teachers.

The findings in the studies mentioned above, which are particularly strong because they employ measurement of learning outcomes among the children being tutored, are consistent with much of the community organization feedback in the service-learning literature and my own evaluation of a state-wide AmeriCorps program in Pennsylvania (Check out the info-graphic summary and video). These studies have revealed challenges identified by community organizations, but they have also indicated community organizations frequently depend upon volunteers to complete direct operational activities and add capacity.

Commitments Less than a Year 

I have been referencing AmeriCorps programs a great deal here. Often these programs are partnered with universities, and students can be part-time AmeriCorps volunteers, though that is definitely not always the case. Frequently AmeriCorps volunteers are dedicated to their service full-time. One of the key components of AmeriCorps is a year-long commitment, so this research may not necessarily be relevant for more short-term volunteer programming.

Fortunately we do have an increasing amount of research dedicated to short-term international volunteering and service-learning. It suggests both community benefit and community concerns or problems (See research summary contributions to this blog by Arends, Nelson, Reynolds, and Toms). Some of my colleagues in child well-being, rights, and protection have worked diligently to specifically discourage international volunteering in orphanages, for a strong set of reasons articulated here. But in other areas we have much to learn – and different programs operate in different ways. Water for Waslala works to leverage the presence of international volunteers to support water access for 56,000 people in a specific region of Nicaragua. Northwestern University’s Global Engagement Studies Institute connects students with community-based organizations to encourage sustainable solutions and capacity development, all using an asset-based development approach – all around the world.


To summarize in terms of the concerns at the top of this post – Young people doing “service” may be:

  • under-prepared or unprepared for the task at hand. If that’s the case, repercussions can include poor quality of service delivery- This concern is a real concern, but data from the Minnesota AmeriCorps program, as well as data from other, smaller studies on community organization experiences of working with volunteers, suggest that meaningful contribution is possible with adequate training and support. 
  • undermining stability or capacity development for the local community organization or schools where they work, by representing quick outside-driven fixes that are not sustainable – Again this is an important concern, yet some models are specifically focused on capacity development and asset-based approaches. 
  • taking jobs away from experienced professionals and de-professionalizing fields that otherwise have clear standards and evidence-based methods (such as education, social work, community development, international development, and public health) If the asset-based approach is employed, short-term volunteers (which includes AmeriCorps and Peace Corps volunteers, should be focused on ensuring the longevity of the community-based solution).

This all points to the needs for training, preparation, and professional support. It also points to the need for large-n studies of short-term international volunteer interventions and their connection with community impact rather than community organization perceptions alone. And finally, it circles back around to Cruz’s assertion that service is “a process of integrating intention with action, in the context of a movement toward a just relationship.”

Beyond Logic Models; Beyond What we Know to Measure Now 

“Just relationship” and “social justice” may well fall outside of the evaluative capacities popular in US social science – but these notions remain incredibly important. If we think of engaging with others in a Freirean sense, through which we become more aware of our and others’ subjective experiences and how those experiences relate and connect with our co-creation of objective reality — then part of the outcome of service engagements must be deep personal reflection that leads to transformation of self and society. We can measure direct results of specific project interventions, but the kinds of transformation that come through such deep engagement with others – also reflected in Gustavo Guttieriez’s liberation theology – are harder to pinpoint (though Richard Kiely’s work absolutely does help us with this). I’ll close with a quote from Guttierez’s recent book with Paul Farmer, in which he reminds us of how relationships can drive us to reconsider and reconstitute the social order:

“If I define my neighbor as the one I must go out to look for, on the highways and byways, in the factories and slums, on the farms and in the mines – then my world changes. This is what is happening with the “option for the poor,” for in the gospel it is the poor person who is the neighbor par excellence….

But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

In other words, conscientious engagement can help us grow in deep respect for and learning from one another – and that may compel us to remake the world, more in accord with justice, humbly, and carefully. I’m including below a presentation that tied together these and related ideas. I hope this reflection and these materials are helpful in supporting your thinking about these areas of practice. For me, this post – like all of them – marks a moment in an effort to continue learning about how best to engage across difference, respectfully and consequentially. Please share any additional comments, thoughts, or questions. Thanks for reading.

Why Partner? by Eric Hartman


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