A very common question by the holders of visas which have employment restrictions is, “Can I engage in unpaid volunteer work under my visa?”
The answer is that it depends on the type of unpaid volunteer work you are seeking to perform. The regulations state in broad terms that unauthorized work is prohibited. But to distinguish whether volunteer work is unauthorized, it is helpful to understand the government’s motives in setting up this regime. The USCIS’ goal is to prevent foreign nationals who have employment restrictions in engaging in work which could give them an advantage over U.S. citizens or which could drive down Americans’ wages or benefits.
Therefore, it is not permitted to volunteer for a productive position which is usually paid. The rationale is that if you are offering to work without a pay in a job which would otherwise be filled by an American who would be paid, then you are subverting the employment authorization system’s goals and undercutting Americans’ job prospects and wages.
However, if the volunteer work you are seeking is for a true volunteer position, for example working for a non-for-profit organization such as a museum, a fire-station, a school or a church where there is no general expectation of compensation, then volunteering and working without pay would be legal. One should look at whether Americans would perform the same job without pay and under similar circumstances and if the answer is “yes,” then a foreign national in an employment-restricted status can volunteer and work without pay.