Developing emotional intelligence through volunteering

When we discuss the benefits of volunteering one of the main areas that comes to forefront is the skills that can be learnt. These can practical, such as gaining a qualification, or ‘soft skills’, such as teamwork and leadership. One that is rarely mentioned, but is often cited as a key indicator of an employee’s future performance (particularly in regards to leadership), is emotional intelligence. Outside of the careers scope there are many other benefits of a high EQ that range from achieving life goals and happiness in relationships. So what is emotional intelligence and how can it be linked to volunteering?

The dictionary definition is that emotional intelligence is “the ability to understand your emotions and those of other people and to behave appropriately in different situations”. If we delve a bit deeper there are five key skills that form emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, social skills. Let’s explore each of these in relation to how volunteering can help improve them.


Knowing ones strengths, weaknesses and values is critical in understanding yourself. Recognising these, alongside your emotions, will give you the tools to think about how you respond to certain situations and how your actions and emotions impact on others. Volunteering can be a brilliant way to improve your self awareness as you are likely get feedback from fellow volunteers and your volunteer managers. It’s also an excellent opportunity to keep a journal and, not only track what you’ve learnt, but how those experiences make you feel. What made you feel good? What was difficult? How could you have reacted differently? These are key questions that you may wish to ask yourself.


Whilst being aware of your emotions is important so is the ability to manage them in a productive manner. This isn’t to say that your initial reactions to stressful situation will always be positive but those with a higher EQ will try to achieve beneficial outcomes for themselves and others. Volunteering can throw up stressful experiences (alongside many other brilliant ones!) and working through those will help you become more flexible, be able to handle to change and view challenges as opportunities.


This gets to the very core of the question, “why do we volunteer?”. Extrinsic motivation, such as pay, recognition and acclaim, are rarely primary motivators. As we see with our research with LSE students the key reasons involve making a difference and that volunteering fits with their values. Valuing achievement for it’s own sake is crucial when volunteering as, primarily, it’s about the cause that you are there to assist. When volunteering make sure you continue to set yourself achievable goals and celebrate when you reach. Asking others, such as your volunteer manager, to keep you accountable to these can also be useful in building this skill.


We’ve written before about the importance of empathy in volunteering (and is it volunteering’s greatest gift?). Moving from a position of sympathy to empathy is crucial when volunteering. It moves us to think and feel about what it would be like if we were walking in other people’s shoes. It starts to become a shared human experience rather than an ‘us and them’ one. Almost all types of volunteering give an opportunity to practice empathy and realise that we might not have all the answers. Being able to see situations from different perspectives is key in forming emotional intelligence.

Social skills

Being able to build meaningful relationships and a strong rapport with others is important in many areas of life. Volunteering can be the perfect way to practice this skill as it will almost certainly introduce you to those outside of your friendship circles, people who will have led completely different lives and view issues through potentially unfamiliar prisms. This might be a little outside your comfort zone but the benefits can be huge. Practicing active listening, asking open-ended questions and taking a genuine interest in others are some ways you can help break the ice when building new relationships when volunteering.

So there are the five key parts of emotional intelligence and how volunteering can play a key role in development each of them. Do you agree? Have you seen your EQ develop through your volunteering? 

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