Many argue that volunteer rates are falling. They complain that people today (usually young people) won’t make commitments to a cause. The problem, people tell me, is that volunteers want to know what’s in it for them. Yep, it’s true. But self-interest isn’t the problem. It’s the solution.

(Photo left: Barack Obama explaining the importance of self-interest)

Why We Do What We Do

People volunteer for every imaginable reason.

“I have so much, I just want to give back.” or, “We wanted to be part of the solution.” or, “There are people out there who need our help.” Or so on. And so forth.

Some are prompted by an advertisement on the subway. Others are invited to volunteer by friends or family. It may be that they were urged to get more active in the community by our religious leaders. Or possibly, someone took President Obama’s message of activism to heart.

All good reasons. Just not good enough.

The best reason for volunteering is always self-interest.

I know, I know. You think I am drunk-blogging. Hold on, I’ll explain.

“Self-interested volunteering” seems generally at odds with everything we’ve come to believe about volunteering. Right? “Self-interested volunteers.” Isn’t that an oxy-moron? What about altruism and the greater good?

In Realized Worth training sessions we raise this controversial point and discuss two reasons why self-interest is an essential aspect of an outstanding volunteer experience. Both reasons have to do with motivation.

First, as my partner Angela Parker will tell you with great conviction, “We all do what we want.” Meaning, there is always some kind of motivation and pay-off for the choices we make. When it comes to motivation, the discussion can get pretty complicated. Very rarely (if at all) will someone make a choice with singular motivation. Usually there are multiple motivators, each compelling the other. (Test this by evaluating why you chose the particulars of your lunch yesterday.)

The Ins and Outs of Motivation

For simplicity’s sake, I would suggest that we experience two kinds of motivation: one; extrinsic and two; intrinsic. When people volunteer for the first time, they are usually motivated extrinsically. (Such as a desire to “give back.”) Extrinsic motivators exist outside of an individual. They are not intimate. And while extrinsic motivations are important, they are not deeply rooted in our personality. More precisely, they are not essential factors in our journey to become who we are.

In nearly two decades now of managing volunteers, extrinsic motivators are almost always the reason volunteers offer for showing up. And honestly, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation. But as time went on, and my volunteers came back, we would invariably have the following conversation:

“Hey Chris, can I talk to you for a sec?”

“Sure,” I’d say.

“Well, it’s just that I’m feeling a little guilty about something.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, I love volunteering and everything, but I think I’m coming for the wrong reasons.”

“Okay…” I’d answer, trying to look like I didn’t know what they were going to say next.

“Um, yeah. I mean, at first I wanted to help out, you know – make a difference. But now, I think I’m getting more out of it than they are. I just don’t know if I am helping anyone here, but I keep coming back because I’m getting a lot out of it. Is that bad?”

“Nope, that’s not bad. That’s how it’s supposed to work.” I’d say, mentally adding this volunteer to the list in my mind labeled, “Valuable.”

It is essential that people begin to discover their intrinsic motivations for volunteering. Why? Because when the things we do connect to who we are, we become personally invested. Our own identity works itself out in conjunction with volunteering. As we reach out to others, we begin to take a journey inward. We begin to discover and express our truer self.

If we remain motivated by exterior voices trying to convince us that we must help, or it is our duty, we will unfortunately remain personally detached from the work itself. In fact, extrinsic motivators such as rewards, incentives, or public recognition at a year-end celebration, may have a negative effect in the long run. In a 1974 study by Green & Lepper, children were rewarded and reinforced for drawing with felt-tip pens. The surprising result? The children showed little to no interest in playing with the pens later on. It seems that the extrinsic motivation of verbal reward replaced any intrinsic motivation, thereby diminishing the innate enjoyment of the activity.

Creating the right kind of space in a volunteer program for people to discover their intrinsic motivation is essential. This is probably the single most important factor in the recruitment and retainment of volunteers. This kind of space is highly valuable for the volunteer manager because it allows for the possibility of meeting volunteers at their highest level of contribution.

There’s another reason why self-interest is essential aspect of an outstanding employee volunteer program. (Actually there are a whole bunch of reasons!) In our next blog post, we’ll talk about how volunteering fosters objectification. It may, in fact, inoculate people against the desire to participate in social action.

Chris Jarvis
Senior Consultant, Realized Worth, Toronto, Canada 317-371-4435
Email me:
Join our Facebook Page
Follow me on Twitter @RealizedWorth
Check out My LinkedIn Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed