Selflessness and altruism make for bad volunteers. Without self-interest, volunteers easily opt out of commitments and objectify those they are trying to help.

Good: Just Not Good Enough

When people show up to volunteer for the first time there are multiple reasons behind that decision. Almost certainly, those reasons are extrinsic. A motivation is extrinsic when it exists outside of the person – like an athlete who feels compelled to run harder when he hears the crowd cheer him on. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation exists within us – like when that athlete runs harder because of the pleasure the sport brings. (For more on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation read Part 1 of this series). When it comes to volunteering, it’s not that extrinsic motivation isn’t good – it’s just not good enough.

Extrinsic motivations aren’t good enough because they don’t last. On the other hand, when our motivation is intrinsic, personal, and tied to our identity, it becomes a priority. If we want people to volunteer with us over the long haul, then we must leave behind the glorified altruistic, for genuine self-interest.

But wait, isn’t volunteering is about giving back? Isn’t it about appreciating how much we have, and helping someone who doesn’t have so much? Volunteering is selfless, isn’t it? Doing good, solving problems, making the world a better place?

It’s Us. Helping Them.


Well, that’s certainly where we all start. But there comes a point when our good intentions toward others threaten to transform them from people into objects.

My True Value

Sunday Suppers in Halifax were held each week in the gym of St Andrews United Church. Our guests were men, women and children experiencing the full spectrum of poverty. Most were dealing with addictions and mental illnesses, many were homeless. We served approximately 150 meals to these families each Sunday. The meals were organized so that over the course of a year thousands of people could experience volunteering. People could show up on a whim without any prior commitment, preparation or experience. I simply oriented them with a 15-minute introduction before serving the meal.

Now, I knew that out of the 50 to 70 volunteers, only a handful would know anything about the issues of poverty, homelessness, addiction or mental illness. I also knew that they sincerely wanted to help in some way. Most of them had intended to serve at Sunday Suppers for some time, but their busy lives had kept them away. That is, until today.

Today, these people had managed to set aside other commitments in order to show up. They were ready to make a difference, feed the hungry, solve a problem. So, I introduced myself and gave a quick sketch of how the meal would operate. Then, I took a few minutes to address our volunteers’ expectations:

“The poor are not a problem to be solved, and we are not going to make a dent in the issues of hunger here today.”

All eyes blinked, clearly asking, “Yes? So what, in fact, are we planning to accomplish by handing out all this food?”

I continued, “We are here to remember who we are; where our true value lies. We have been bombarded all week by messages that try to persuade us that our value is found in the labels on our clothes, the model of our car, the square footage of our house, the letters in our degree, and the tonnage of our consumption. We are driven to buy more, sell more, make more, consume more.”

Many heads nodded in silent, exhausted agreement.

“But none of these things make us valuable. Not any more than the complete lack of these things make our guests – the men, women and children waiting to receive this meal – less valuable.

Rather, we each possess an innate value that transcends these trappings and the frenzied activities of our lives.”

The group had become quiet. Some looked at the floor, others exchanged knowing glances.

“In fact, as a volunteer at this meal, your highest contribution is simply being here. Now don’t get me wrong, we need people to run the meals, wash the dishes and clean the floors,’ I said as I smiled and elbowed the guy next to me. ‘But the most amazing gift you have to offer is the simple message “You are worth it”. By showing up here today for just a couple hours, you’re telling our guests, “You are worth some of my life.”

While you were pressured all week to do more, gain more, become more, these men and women were being told to get off the street, get away from the door, go find a job. Two hours of your life this Sunday afternoon is priceless. Because today we remember together who we are. We remind each other where our true value lies. And we lift each other up in a celebration of life, community and hope.”

The orientation would conclude with a brief prayer of gratitude. Then, we would walk out together to spend time with our guests…and to remember, if only for a few moments, our mutually innate value.

Where Our True Value Lies

At Sunday Suppers, the time volunteers spent among the guests was essential. It was when the line between “us and them” became sufficiently blurred. Who is serving and who is being served? Who really gives, and who receives? Unless we become personally engaged with those we are serving, we will find ourselves working to fix them. Our goal will focus on enabling them to look, act, and talk like “us.” Sure, we want these things for good reasons. Poverty is not a ‘culture’ to be preserved and cherished. It is, rather, a societal class that exists because of systemic injustice and apathy. But there is a defining difference between viewing poverty as an issue to be addressed, and objectifying those affected by poverty by viewing them as a problem to be fixed.

When we are motivated to help someone else we naturally consider what good we can do, what resources we have to offer, and how we can actively be a part of some kind of solution. We want to ‘fix’ something, develop a solution to the problem. We want to make life better. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as that’s the starting point. If we stay there, with those notions of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ we will almost certainly begin to objectify people.

Self-interest, not altruism is what makes for a great volunteer. Help your volunteers discover the personal reasons they have for being there. Doing so will ensure their commitment and keep them from objectifying those they are working with.

Chris Jarvis
Senior Consultant, Realized Worth, Toronto, Canada 1-317-371-4435
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