Volunteering Vs. Unpaid Work

Volunteering in the U.S.

What requires authorization and what doesn’t?

American culture values volunteerism. It is a great way to give back to your community or to those less fortunate than you. However, as international students and scholars, you need to take more care to ensure that your volunteer activities do not require authorization.

To determine if the opportunity you are interested in is truly charitable in nature, ask yourself the following questions:

What is volunteering?

When an individual donates time to an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian in nature, without remuneration or any other type of compensation. True volunteer activities do not require authorization.

What is work that requires authorization?

When an individual provides services or labor for an employer for some type of compensation or benefit. NOTE – this can include unpaid work! Unpaid internships generally require authorization and do not qualify as “volunteer” activity.

Where am I planning to volunteer?

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), you may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers. Often, individuals may volunteer services to non-profit or community organizations with public service, religious, or humanitarian objectives.

Why am I volunteering?

To advance my career or to eventually get a job with the organization – requires authorization. To offer help for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons (out of the kindness of your heart) – may not require authorization.

Is the opportunity related to my major of study?

Yes – probably requires authorization.
No – may not require authorization.

Will I be reimbursed in any way for my work?

Yes – requires authorization. Remember, remuneration includes a variety of non-monetary benefits, such as free housing, food, gifts, etc.
No – may not require authorization.

If you want to volunteer your time, there are plenty of opportunities in the Houston area! Ways to help include:

  • Serving meals at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter
  • Caring for animals at an animal shelter
  • Cleaning up a park or beach
  • Reading to kids at the library
  • Helping build a home with Habitat for Humanity

However, the line between volunteer work and unpaid work is blurry. Just because a place offers “volunteer” opportunities, does not mean that you will not be rendering services. It is always good to speak with an OISS advisor before participating in volunteer work. A schedule for our virtual and in-person walk-in advising hours is available at https://oiss.rice.edu/appointment.