The ‘Why’ Series is Here!

The ‘Why’ Series

This will be the first article in the first series of a series of articles. This series will be entitled the ‘Why’ series and will explore the reasons why people volunteer. Each series will start with an introductory article explaining the series; this article is that introductory article. This paragraph is the introduction to that introduction. I’ll stop now.

Why: An Introduction

The question of why a person volunteers is a rather complex one. Why would anyone give up their precious Sunday morning of drinking coffee and reading the weekend papers to venture outside to serve coffee or pick up newspapers from the street? Through exploring the plethora of interrelated reasons behind a decision such as this, this series aims to cut through the clouds of generalisation and misrepresentation that surround volunteering and shed light on the very heart of volunteering itself.

Phrases such as ‘not-for-profit’, ‘selfless-sacrifice’ and ‘no-financial-gain’ are as firmly attached to the term volunteer as a limpet is attached to a rock. These are massive generalisations and fail utterly to adequately describe the vast majority of volunteering experiences. Whilst no money changes hands between the volunteer organisation and the volunteer, it would be wrong to say that the volunteer gains nothing from the act of volunteering. This series of articles aims to explore these aspects, examining them as both motivating factors and resultant gains. In doing so it will hopefully not only encourage people to volunteer but also encourage both volunteers and non-volunteers to think about why people volunteer.

In Cnaan and Amrofell’s article ‘Mapping Volunteer Activity’ (published in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly) the authors group the ‘rewards’ of volunteering into five categories (346-347):

1) “tangible or material rewards that are not pay-for-service, yet provide tangible benefits” (they give examples such as improving your CV or gaining work-experience)

2) “internal rewards that make individuals  feel better about themselves” (they give examples of ‘positive self-image’ and ‘religious fulfillment’)

3) social-interaction rewards. People who feel lonely may find volunteering gratifying because it increases their social ties”

4) norms and social pressures. Some individuals may be expected  to volunteer because of  societal or family expectations” (they give an example of children assisting elderly parents)”

5) avoidance rewards. Participation  in volunteer activity can enable people to avoid other obligations or social  interactions they dislike” (they give an example of people avoiding a prison sentence by doing community service)

These categories of ‘rewards’ will form a good starting point to explore the wider issues surrounding the reasons why people volunteer. It is quite clear from the brief overview above that the reasons for volunteering will not always be value-driven. Other reasons for volunteering may exist alongside or completely independent of value-driven motives. These reasons could be inferior, equal, or superior to altruistic values and motivations. Non-altruistic motives could even be the primary reason for volunteering with altruism or activism not being a factor in the decision to volunteer. Furthermore these values and motivations could have changed in relative importance to one another. Perhaps someone who initially volunteered to develop skills that would enhance his resume and therefore increase his employability, developed a real empathy with the goals and aims of the organisation. Volunteering requires constant justification in the mind of the individual because it is essentially giving up time that would otherwise be described as ‘free-time’ or ‘leisure-time’. This series will hopefully explore all of these issues and more…


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