In this post, I thought I’d just paraphrase Charles Eisenstein (rough and ready transcript) from the video above. He’s an engaging writer and speaker on the role of the gift economy today.
I’ve pulled out the part of the explanation which is particularly pertinent to a lot of the subjects I’ve raised on the blog. For example, how volunteering connects with the idea of the gift economy.
“A new story of self…
Money is an agreement. It doesn’t have value all by itself. It has value because people agree that it has value.
Scarcity is built into the system. On the most obvious level this is because of interest bearing debt. Any time a bank lends money into existence, there is a corresponding level of debt. And because there’s always interest payable on the money, the amount of debt is always greater than the money in existence. It essentially throws people into competition with one another -for never enough money.
Growth is another thing that is built into our money system. If you’re a bank, you are going to lend to those people who are going to create new goods and services, so that they can profit and pay you back.
You’re not going to lend to people who don’t create goods and services.
So money goes to those who will create even more of it.
Growth means you need to find something that was once nature and turn it into a good/commodity; or find a gift relationship and turn it into a service.
You have to find something that people once got for free, or that people did for one another for free. You take it away from them, and then you have to sell it back to them- somehow.
By turning things into commodities, you cut people off from nature, in the same way that we’re cut off from community (when gift relationships are transformed into relationships between service user and service provider).
(The money economy encourages us to) look at nature as just a bunch of stuff. This leaves us very lonely. And it leaves us with many human needs that go unmet.
(One way we) fulfill this hunger (is) through purchasing, through buying things.
We know life is a gift. Well, if we know we have received a gift, then our natural response is gratitude.
In a gift society, if you have more than you need, you share it. This is how you build up status. It’s also how you build up security too. If you build up gratitude, then people are going to look after you too.
No gifts, no community.
(For this reason) you can’t just have community as an add-on to a monetized life. You have to actually need each other.”
It occurs to me that with the changes currently taking place with volunteering, that we could be going through this process for a second time.
We’ve already seen the money economy take things we did for one another as gifts, and turn them into paid-for commercialised services.
An example Eisenstein frequently cites is food preparation. Rather than cook for one another (in our families and communities) as was the case, it’s more typical now to eat food that we purchase and that’s been prepared outside our home by others.
In this way, Eisenstein suggests, the gift economy has been displaced by the expansion of paid-for services.
However, with the recent growth in volunteering, the gift economy has struck back.
Meals on Wheels are services typically driven by volunteers, who give their time to help distribute and offer meals to the vulnerable in our communities. It’s a gift economy solution to a gap, left by the trend that’s transformed food preparation from gift into a paid-for service.
Gradually, voluntary services that sprung up spontaneously as expressions of the gift economy spirit, are being encouraged to present themselves as services. This is the money economy reasserting itself.
For example, anecdotally there are many cases of volunteers being told that for the sake of financial cost and economic efficiency, they should cut down on the time spent having a chat and fostering a relationship with those they deliver to.
The influence of the money system is deep and profound. It has changed the way giving relationships make our society and economy what they are today.
Pondering reputation for a second, illuminates many of the issues that are now in play in the social web.
Reputation is not something you can buy, it is something that’s given to you. The concept of reputation demonstrates how the economy of relationships is not like the economy of commodities and transactions. There’s a growing interest in the idea of reputation as forming the basis of new kind of gift economy online.
Think for a minute about love and friendship. Just as the song goes, “money can’t buy me love“. There are clearly limits to the power of money. A couple of crude examples might be prostitution is sex without love, and escorts are companions without friendship. This limit to money is something we sense intuitively and points to something embedded deep within our social sense of self.
This timeless theme of how money cannot reach what makes us human within, is what makes Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as relevant today as ever. It’s an idea that goes way back to Aesop‘s fable (from about 600 BCE) of the goose that laid golden eggs,where the owners killed the goose to get the gold that must be inside it. They found nothing and so this narrative of how gold is not something that you can find inside us, goes back to the mists of time.
It’s strange then that it should be a surprise to find that charities have stronger reputations when compared to commercial entities if we understand that reputation is not something you buy. On Wednesday last week the Guardian’s David Brindle reported that in the Reputation Institute’s latest report that was extended beyond corporates, included ten charities for the first time. The report measures reputation by surveying public opinion. They found:
While the global average score for corporate reputation on the institute’s scale is 64.2 out of 100, and the highest UK corporate score is the 87.2 achieved by high-street chemist Boots, nine of the 10 charities that were assessed have come out above 80 and three are above 90. Top of the tree is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) on 95.1, the highest score ever recorded by the institute.
It’s important to set the results in context. From the information in the article, only ten charities where included alongside 140 companies. In addition, following their methodology for private companies, the research seems to have only selected the biggest charities. In fact, it’s bizarre if reputations can’t be bought that the Reputation Institute is mainly interested in the richest companies. These limitations aside, the results would seem to just underline the obvious: reputations can’t be bought. Reputations are given. So it’s not really any surprise that charities, built on giving relationships (volunteers, donations and supporters) can establish stronger reputations, than companies built on exchanging commodities to maximise the bottom line. But should relationships come at the expense of profit?
‘Markets are conversations’
With the advent of the social web, private companies have become more and more concerned with this question of how to build their reputation in a world where customers have a platform to voice their views about the products they buy. Into this world came The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999. Its message that ‘markets are conversations‘ gave a voice to the sense that companies, used to focusing on clinching the deal and controlling management, needed to begin focusing on a more reciprocal relationship they could build with their customers.
The first markets were filled with people, not abstractions or statistical aggregates; they were the places where supply met demand with a firm handshake. Buyers and sellers looked each other in the eye, met, and connected. The first markets were places for exchange, where people came to buy what others had to sell — and to talk.
The first markets were filled with talk. Some of it was about goods and products. Some of it was news, opinion, and gossip. Little of it mattered to everyone; all of it engaged someone. There were often conversations about the work of hands: “Feel this knife. See how it fits your palm.” “The cotton in this shirt, where did it come from?” “Taste this apple. We won’t have them next week. If you like it you should take some today.” Some of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.
Two of the manifesto’s authors Doc Searls and David Weinberger talk about the ‘industrial interruption‘. It captures this idea that industrialisation has increasingly created barriers and lengthened the distance between buyers and sellers. It’s reminiscent of the Simmelian concept of the stranger and the changing nature of the relationships we have with the people around us explored in a previous post. Behind the Cluetrain Manifesto is also the idea that the relationship between buyers and sellers is give and take in both directions, not just a straightforward exchange. But what do buyers give to sellers? Their answer is, in part, knowledge:
This conversation may be irreverent of eternal verities, but it’s not all jokes. Whether in the marketplace or at work, people do have genuine, serious concerns. And we have something else as well: knowledge. Not the sort of boring, abstract knowledge that “Knowledge Management” wants to manage. No. The real thing. We have knowledge of what we do and how we do it ” our craft ” and it drives our voices; it’s what we most like to talk about.
Reputation is not just for companies as a whole to think about, it’s also for each one of us.
In 2003, Cory Doctorow’s book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was published. Quite apart from being an fascinating experiment in the gift economy (you can download it for free in a ton of different formats), it introduced the concept of a kind of reputation-based currency called Whuffie. Importantly, anyone’s Whuffie can be pinged at any time by anyone so your Whuffie is public information.
The book describes a kind of post-scarcity economy where there is an abundance of material goods. Whuffie is essentially a way of keeping track of people’s standing in the opinion of others with a view to incentivising cooperation and good behaviour in a society where money is meaningless.
As a result, the concept of whuffie gets into some of the problems of measuring things that are hard to measure, such as reputation. Doctorow himself in an interview with Gerry Canavan hinted at this:
“I think that in general we have a pathological response to anything we measure. We tend not to measure the thing we care about; we tend to measure something that indicates its presence. It’s often very hard to measure the thing that you’re hoping for. You don’t actually care about how calories you eat; you care about how much weight you’re going to gain from the calories you eat. But as soon as we go, oh, well, calories are a pretty good proxy for weight gain, we start to come up with these foods that are incredibly unhealthy but nevertheless have very few calories in them.”
Bridging capital – the number of connections you have across to different industries, social strata, etc.
Bonding capital – the depth of your close connections (how close and how much you could ask of your connections)
Access to ideas and talent through your connections
Access to resources through your connections
Potential access to further resources (more distant, but very legitimate)
Saved up favors (reciprocity is huge – which is why doing good stuff matter a lot with social capital)
Accomplishments (slightly different from reputation, it is the more fungible form of social capital – resumes, awards, etc.)
Social capital of those who you have relationships with
Several people including Venessa Miemis have picked Hunt up on equating whuffie to social capital. Miemis quotes James Coleman, Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama to demonstrate that “social capital and reputation are not equivalent things. Social capital is something embedded within networks, not something directly tied to an individual’s status“. It’s the gap familiar to students of social science between what happens on the individual or micro level, and what happens on the social or macro level.
Hunt in a later blog post insists her intention is not about creating a measure, at least not measuring influence, but rather impact. My interpretation is that Hunt is more interested in the ends of having Whuffie than the means. But it all feels awfully like this argument about commensurability between economic efficiency and deeper social values. In other words, it’s easy to mistake a proxy like number of Twitter followers a person has (that’s readily available, understandable and even exchangeable), with the deeper value of the relationship with the person (that’s not so easily understandable or exchangeable). Tara Hunt explains her position on measuring Whuffie (for want of a better term):
What I love most about the way Beth [Kanter] thinks of measuring is that the impact, not the influence is the final goal. The big prize. All too many times, people stop at the influence part: how popular is that person? how many followers do we have? who is talking about me and my company? how much love do people feel for me?
This is one of the biggest reasons I don’t like to measure Whuffie. I get the question time and time again when I talk about the book. The question I *should* be getting is ˜what can I do with my Whuffie?’. We should be less concerned about how many followers one has and more about what that person does with that many followers. Not only is Whuffie left better in the non-fungible, ephemeral realm, but it is inconsequential. The measure needs to be in the impact. If we concentrate on our influence, we forget the end goal. We get caught up in our ego.
But if Whuffie isn’t a measure and is not about an exchange-based system, then it seems the guys over at the start up Whuffie Bank have got a bit confused, since this is exactly what they’ve attempted to get started. As one of the commenters (Artbrock) on the TechCrunch piece points out: “For a reputation currency to be useful and have integrity it should not be able to be exchanged, bought or sold. It should only be able to be earned for doing the things that the reputation is granted for”.
People are interested in Whuffie particularly because, with the increasing use of online social networks, people’s reputation appears to be more easily measurable and exchangeable. Doctorow based Whuffie originally on the idea of karma on Slashdot, Hunt was inspired by Facebook, Twitter and blogs and more. The Whuffie Bank proposes to base its virtual currency on users Twitter activity.
As Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, added after Whuffie Bank’s presentation at TechCrunch 50, ‘reputation is based on personal networks and context of issues’. For example, a close family relation might not be publicly well-known and so have low whuffie, while in fact may be personally influential because of the closeness of the relationship. Again, I may rate reputation differently for certain people in my network depending on how I rate their expertise on the issue being discussed. It’s this complexity that makes reputation so difficult to quantify.
It feels like while Twitter ‘glisters’ it’s still a poor proxy for reputation, but the point here is that it’s firing the imagination of many of a new basis to the economy made possible by a more social web.
The implications for volunteering
To sum up, this debate about reputation illuminates the issues and challenges for gift economies in the age of the social web. Reputation building is all about relationships and connection, not about money and control. Reputation is not the same as social capital. It cannot easily be measured and exchangeable reputation is almost certainly a contradiction in terms.
There are questions for charities. Is a measurable kind of reputation useful? Could it help volunteers find more suitable volunteering opportunities? Could it help donors find the causes they want to support more easily? Could it help incentivise volunteering if people felt it was contributing to their reputation that could be easily understandable, publicly available and perhaps even exchangeable for other kinds of goods and services? These are questions I’ll be turning to in future posts.
“There’s no way to maintain strong ties with that many people with such fast growth. So, the point here is that numbers in social media don’t matter as much building relationships one person at a time.”
In other words, remember: ‘all that twitters may not be gold’
The debate about measurement and efficiency in the third sector is once again coming to the fore, as the government talks up the ‘Big Society‘ while at the same time announcing widespread cuts. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate how our thinking about giving influences the way we conceive of the relationship between the government and the voluntary sector. In recent years, the government has moved away from a gift model, towards an exchange model in it’s approach to investing in public services and community development. For example, in semantic terms this means no more talk of grants, aid and funding awards, instead it’s all about commissioning, contracts and loans.
This growing move to make government funding of the voluntary sector more like a transaction, is changing the relationship between the two. [Commodity] exchange logic demands that the government, as a commissioner of services from the voluntary sector, makes payment contingent on results. Whereas in the past, the government’s approach was closer to gift logic: grants that were more like donations. Government funding in the past was often given on the basis of a long standing relationship or as more impersonal giver, as with giving to strangers, acting as a financial proxy between citizens and civil society.
“[A] distinction between gifts and commodities is made by Bell (1991), who focuses on how individuals can increase the benefits of their exchanges. In a gift economy, benefits come from improving the technology of social relations by, for example, increasing the range and diversity of one’s social network. In commodity economies, the benefits come from making improvements in the technology of production. Thus, gift economies are driven by social relations while commodity economies are driven by price. It is also important to note that gift exchange and commodity transactions are ideal types, and any economy will be a mix of these two types of exchange as well as many intermediate cases between them.”
In this post, I’d like to discuss some the arguments that this issue of the relationship between the government and the voluntary sector provokes.
Rethinking public services
The way the social web in particular has led to the development of new communities has energised the rethinking of public services. Much of this is based on the power of the web to connect people and foster collaboration.
Dan Mcquillan was the final speaker at the myPublicServices event in London on November 26 2009 that discussed how the social web could help transform public services. This video was filmed by David Wilcox, Social Reporter. In this piece, Dan Mcquillan talks about how the transformation of services involves shifts of power. He mentions the idea of recuperation where ideas that are perceived as radical, are commodified and incorporated within mainstream society.
He also mentions the example of transition towns as a social movement that demonstrates the energy we have within. Transition towns are a response to the twin pressures of Peak Oil and Climate Change, where some pioneering communities in the UK, Ireland and beyond are taking an integrated and inclusive approach to reduce their carbon footprint and increase their ability to withstand the fundamental shift that will accompany Peak Oil.
I mention Dan Mcquillan’s talk and myPublicServices event (put together by Patient Opinion) because it’s a great example of this contrast between the culture of giving and collaboration on the social web, and the culture embedded now in most public services that in delivering services, these institutions and bodies are involved in some kind of commodity exchange. As an aside, it’s worth noting how recent this view of public services is. For much of the 20th Century, the predominant controversy was the clash between whether ‘command and control’ or free market mechanisms were the best way of delivering public services.
First point then, is that this discussion about transforming public services is a political discussion, not just an economic question of efficiency. It’s important not to lose sight of this, as many present the issues at stake in terms how to get the biggest bang for the taxpayers’ buck.
This is a more nuanced argument than it first appears. Arguments for focussing on economic efficiency are not just because the most efficient delivery of services costs less, but because it provides society with a clear mechanism for coming to collective decisions. As Oliver Kamm puts it:
“Moral values are incommensurable. They are not necessarily judged on the same scale. Arguments about efficiency are easier to come by and, thus, easier to come to a social consensus about.”
As moral values tend to be incommensurable, in other words, there is no straightforward way to compare one against another. For exchange to work, by definition, you need to be able to compare one service against another. Otherwise how would you know how to make the decision to exchange. Exchange logic craves comparative information. In fact, it’s driven by comparison. Gift logic on the other hand, is driven by the connection or relationship between the giver and the receiver.
Money measures, giving connects
One of the functions of money is as a measure that facilitates exchange. As modern giving activities have become increasingly dependent on wider monetary system, so money holds out the possibility to some as a way of measuring impact. It’s important to note that most measures of social impact come down to money as a measure. However, just because giving is supported monetarily (for example through monetary donations) is don’t mean that it makes any sense to measure social impact in terms of money. Giving is the different paradigm based on making personal connections and relationships. Money has developed in a way that allows transactions between people without creating personal connections and relationships.
Inputs and outcomes
When the government began to favour the policy of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) [later became Best Value] in the 1980s, the emphasis decisively changed. CCT meant that central forced local authorities to put various services out to competition. However, it promoted competition between tenders that could cut the input costs of the equation. Recently the focus has changed to measuring outcomes.
The 2020 Public Services Trust produced a report called ‘Better Outcomes‘ (PDF) which explores outcome commissioning that seeks to incentivise the achievement of specific outcomes, whether the delivery agency is from the voluntary sector or not. Both CCT and outcome commissioning are moves towards an exchange-based system whether that is through setting up tendering processes on the basis of cost, or through incentivising the achievement of specific outcomes.
A question of motivation
What’s ironic is that it’s an example of thinking in public policy and private sector spheres moving in very different directions. The problem with introducing hard outcomes at the social level, is that they crowd out the factors that motivate individuals to achieve those outcomes on the personal level.
That’s to say, policies that privilege hard factors like cost inputs or quantitative outcomes undermine the very thing the voluntary sector does better than the public or private sector: how it taps into what really motivates people to effect social change whether that paid staff, volunteers and service users themselves. To use the terminology of motivation theory: it’s moving the voluntary sector away from the intrinsic motivators towards the extrinsic motivators of competition on price and financial rewards for hitting key performance indicators.
This is just at a time where more and more research is urging companies in the private sector to look beyond crude extrinsic aspects of motivation and focus rather on intrinsic points like energy, enthusiasm and a desire to continually get better. Behavioural economists, educational psychologists, social psychologists among many others (Dan Pink, Dan Ariely, Bruno Frey, to name a few) have produced a growing mountain of literature on this. These are not new ideas and go back all the way to Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg and Clayton Alderfer amongst many others. It seems desperate that policy with regards to managing the voluntary sector is going in exactly the opposite direction.
Giving is all about intrinsic motivators such as doing what you feel is important and what gives you a sense of satisfaction. On the other hand, exchange logic is driven by extrinsic motivators like the price of a commodity, the cost of a service or the penalties of not making a particular choice.
Exchange thinking crowds out the reason to give
So what’s driving the voluntary sector away from what it does best?
Just last week I was talking with a worker from big UK charity that supports young people who are beyond the reach of mainstream routes into work or learning. What he told me encapsulates this phenomenon described above. Now his organisation is paid for every person who achieves employment at the end of the period of contact with the charity. The twist is that this is dependent on each young person remaining in that employment for six months. Once that’s achieved the charity is paid. It’s a nice clear hard outcome.
The result, though, is perverse. It incentivises the organisation to involve those who are more likely to achieve the target of being in work for six months at the end of the contact with the charity. In other words, it’s an extrinsic motivator (an externally agreed target) that crowds out the intrinsic motivating factors such as the satisfaction or challenge of building connections with the hardest to reach in our society. We give and respond to gifts from others for reasons personal to each of us, not because of impersonal and inflexible factors beyond our control.
Equivalence (league tables and all that stuff)
And so many have identified the challenge here as being about a separation between different levels. What if we could translate between the micro, individual or personal level on the one hand, and the macro, social and impersonal level at the other. There have been a proliferation of techniques that attempts to solve this ‘problem’ of translation.
An interesting one from the world of education has been to suggest that part of the problem of not being able to compare schools in this case, has been to factor in the starting points of each. If only we have a baseline, we can compare the value added of each school that allows for those whose kids are more affected by different social disadvantage.
Another translating technique is to establish equivalence. Examples of this approach is the VIVA audit in volunteering or the Social Return on Investment. VIVA seeks to translate volunteering from giving to exchanging, by drawing an equivalence between a particular volunteering role and a similar role that is remunerated. The method of Social Return on Investment (SROI) focusses more on outcomes than inputs (such as volunteering time). It allows charities to compare the total value of their outcomes against the value of the inputs needed to achieve those outcomes.
In other words, SROI enables charities to be able to explain the value of their work in the following way: ˜for every pound spent, we create ‘x’ pounds of social value’. Again SROI functions by being able to find equivalent activities in other sectors with established costs. For example, the cost of keeping someone in prison for six months or the cost of treating someone with a particular illness. New Philanthropy Capital have just written a position paper of SROI which goes into lots more depth. YouthNet has taken part in a project to explore the practical applications of SROI.
Equivalence leads to confusion
There are many concerns with these techniques in translation that explain giving against exchanged equivalents. One pointed out by Jayne Cravens on her post ‘dollar value of volunteers‘, is that people start to take the idea of equivalence too literally and overlook the very real distinctions between giving and exchange. In Jayne’s example, equivalence can lead to substitution with employers cutting paid staff because involving volunteers is such great value it saves money by substituting paid staff with volunteers. The equivalence that translation gives us between the world views of giving and exchanging should not be confused with the two being equal. They are fundamentally different.
Equivalence promises the unrealistic
Another concern raised on the blog Concrete Solutions by Liam Barrington Bush (found via i-Volunteer) is that searching for any equivalence between giving and exchanging is like ‘measuring water with a ruler‘. Liam Barrington Bush makes the point that (citing Glouberman and Zimmerman) it’s the complexity of social problems that makes equivalence impossible. Instead, the issue of trust between the funder and the charity receiving the funding is the key, rather than where a charity comes in a performance league table. The role of the state in fostering public trust is an interesting broader philosophical question. Onora O’Neil amongst others has looked at how we can develop a more practical approach to trust.
Martin Brookes from New Philanthropy Capital argues in The Guardian that need to provide ‘evidence of their impact’.
“If charities want to be the answer to helping build “big society” they need to get serious about demonstrating their impact. The best should be supported and scaled up. The less good might be earmarked for cuts. If ministers choose this path, meeting the twin goals of cutting the deficit and fixing social problems is a possibility.”
It’s surely the case that charities need to be able to explain their work in terms of how they are achieving the mission. However, it is not at all clear that a charity needs to be able to compare its impact against other charities or public services. Instead charities need to explain their work in terms of the relationship they have with all their stakeholders (service users, funders, volunteers, paid staff, etc). When you give to a charity (e.g. making a donation or volunteering) you’re not purchasing a social impact, you’re connecting with others to help bring about that social impact.
In the end, giving is all about personal relationships
The issue of trust, I think, brings us back to the importance of the connection and relationship between the giver and the receiver. In terms of giving, the relationship is everything whoever the givers and receivers are: government, business, citizens, state, civil society organisations, etc. For a system based on commodity exchange within a free market, comparison is everything, especially where your relationship with the prospective providers is weak or non-existent. However, for a system based on giving, the relationship you have with those you give to or receive from is everything.
In the end, the efficiency of volunteering and of the voluntary sector, can only make sense in the context of the personal relationships and connections that the giving and receiving between the stakeholders involved makes possible. What we are looking for are new ways to understand the significance and meaning of these relationships and make decisions collectively and individually about them. How the state supports the voluntary sector and volunteering is a very live issue which has to do with how we value the role of giving in our society and the common good. It’s not an issue that can be decided by resorting to arbitrary and confusing measures that institutionalise assumptions about the nature of social impact and economic efficiency.
“Should not the giver be thankful that the receiver received? Is not giving a need? Is not receiving, mercy?” Friedrich W. Nietzsche
“I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received.” Antonio Porchia
Both these quotes neatly make the point that it takes two for giving to take place: a giver and a receiver. It’s easy to focus on the giver, but it’s also crucial to understand the act of receiving gifts from others. After all, for giving to be meaningful, there’s a requirement for someone to receive it.
Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist, points out that there are different possible reasons why we might prefer not to receive gifts. First, it might have something to do with the fact that our need for the gift might place us outside the perceived social norm. As a result we might be embarrassed, threatened or even humiliated by accepting a gift.
Another reason might be to do with how giving creates connections between people. Some people might want the gift, but not the relationship that comes with it. In other words, some might not want to receive gifts because they don’t want to feel like they owe someone something.
Behavioural economists use the term ‘social utility’ to describe outcomes that are socially useful. In these terms, the person on the receiving end of a gift is accepting they owe something to the giver, and as a result the receiver is granting the giver social utility. This social debt (non-monetary) effectively represents a cost to the receiver. So this may explain why some people might wish to receive the gift anonymously to get the benefit of the gift, without the social cost of owing reciprocation to the giver. See Ariely’s example in the video above of the guy who prefers to enjoy the gift of the sweets anonymously.
An obligation to receive
In Western tradition, gifts are understood as free in the sense that they’re unsolicited, require no reciprocity and represent a private gesture (not a public/social gesture). French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s ideas from the time just after the First World War, ran counter to this tradition. He saw giving gifts as the pre-cursor to barter, because giving comes with obligations and is self-interested. He pointed to this cost when he set out the moral obligations of receiving and then reciprocating. For Mauss, there was an obligation on the receiver of the gift to accept. The three Maussian obligations are:
The obligation to give
The obligation to receive
The obligation to return
The point is that in the very idea of gift-exchange, the recipient has the obligation to receive. Not accepting a gift would imply that the targeted recipient does not accept either the relationship itself or the specific sentiment the gift conveys. Mauss’s particular theory for why this is so has to do with how he thought the gift someone gave came with the spirit of the giver. As a result, the receiver of the gift could not reject a gift. To reject it, would be to reject the person offering the gift themselves. In practical terms, this obligation to receive works because the receiver knows who the giver is and vice versa. It’s because of this personal connection that a social obligation’s formed. Not to respond would be to lose face. Moreover, to accept without reciprocating is to demonstrate inferiority.
However, as Dan Ariely has pointed out in his studies of economic behaviour, people go to great lengths to avoid accepting gifts. This old anecdote from V. Mihailescu, cited by Chris Hann in his article ‘The Gift and Reciprocity: Perspectives from Economic Anthropology’:
In Cristian, an originally German but now multi-ethnic village in Transylvania, a Romanian peasant gifts her Saxon neighbour a few new-born ducklings. I brought you some ducklings, I have way too many- the Romanian explains. The Saxon politely refuses. The Romanian insists, and, after a long ‘negotiation’ the two women agree that the Saxon will pay the countervalue of the ducklings. The Romanian leaves, slightly in doubt, and the Saxon explains to me: Imagine if I would have accepted! Who knows what she would ask me later on, and we’d keep endlessly going in this manner. But now, in this way we are even!
So the idea goes, while giving was more appropriate where people knew each other better and had personal relationships, i.e. with family, friends and neighbours, etc., giving was more problematic with those that they were not as intimate with or close to. In these circumstances where people knew each other less well, trading and commercial exchange were more appropriate. It meant that the relationship didn’t need to extend beyond the act of giving and receiving itself. You sell something to me, I buy it. That’s the end of the matter. There’s no obligation to do anything more beyond that deal.
A gift transaction involves a diffuse and usually unstated obligation to repay the gift at some future time. Gift exchanges should not involve explicit bargaining or demands that the gift be reciprocated, but a relationship in which there is only giving and no receiving is unlikely to last. The contrast to a gift exchange is a commodity transaction, in which no obligation exists after the exchange is consummated – the bottle of water purchased at a convenience store does not create an obligation to buy something there again.
In addition, Kollock underlines the nature of the bond or connection that’s made through giving. Gifts are typically exchanged between people in an ongoing interdependent relationship. One person buys from the other, both are individual agents acting in their own self-interest. Kollock continues:
A gift is also tied in an inalienable way to the giver. This is to say that gifts are unique: it is not simply a sweater, but rather the sweater-that-Bill-gave-me. In contrast, commodities are not unique and derive no special value having been acquired from person X rather than person Y – a pound of flour is a pound of flour is a pound of flour when purchased at a supermarket.
Receiving what volunteers give
So how does all this apply to volunteering? As posted in the previous post, volunteering is a social construct. It’s developed to enable us to give to the strangers we live with and alongside in our urbanised societies. As Richard Titmuss showed in relation to blood donation, the aim has been to create a system that scales the Western concept of the free gift and makes it social. Titmuss said in his book ‘The Gift Relationship’: “Unlike gift-exchange in traditional societies, there is in the free gift of blood to unnamed strangers no contract of custom, no legal bond, no functional determinism, no situations of discriminatory power, domination, constraint or compulsion, no sense of shame or guilt, no gratitude imperative¦“. Titmuss wanted to remove the element of social obligation from the act of giving.
People can give to the system, without creating personal obligations for specific individuals who may receive the gift. So in the case of blood donation, donors of blood can give without obliging those who receive the blood to give blood themselves. The obligation, in as far as it exists, is to a generalised conception of the wider community. People can freely give, receivers can freely receive. How many volunteers say they are giving back, but without knowing exactly who they are giving back to?
Volunteering as a idea, has developed along similar lines to blood donation. Volunteers can give to a cause, while the beneficiaries can receive without feeling obligated to specific individuals. In fact, these ideas have massively evolved over the 20th Century. In my own experience, organisations I’ve worked with have become increasingly conscious of the obligations that receiving gifts places on those who receive them (namely the service users).
Many vulnerable families have spoken of the importance of being able to give back to the projects they have received support from, and how disempowering having to rely on charity can become. I remember one man in Brussels from a street project I was connected with through ATD Quart Monde, said that the first time you went to receive free food it was great, the second time it was ok, but by the third, fourth, fifth time, having to receive food before you could eat was one of the worst things in the world. It loaded the vulnerable with social debt, with no way of reciprocating. The end result: the giving exacerbated the social exclusion it was intended to address.
As third sector organisations have better understood this obligation to receive and give back, increasing emphasis is made on the need for participation or co-production in the giving activities that are organised throughout the third sector. Essentially, these ideas are other ways to express the importance of being able to take on this obligation to receive and give back. It is incredibly difficult to build meaningful relationships with service users, and service users with service providers, when there is no way of reciprocating the gifts offered and received.
In an age of participation and active citizenship, it’s easy to forget that volunteering’s roots lie in an early form of enabling beneficiaries to reciprocate or in Maussian terms, to carry out their obligation to give back. For more on this recent history see Steven Howlett’s paper ‘Lending a hand to lending a hand‘ (PDF) that traces the development of volunteering (in particular the development of volunteer centres) in the UK since the Second World War.
In many cases, volunteers do not know the people who receive the benefit of the services they offer, while by the same token many recipients do not know the identity of the volunteers who’ve contributed to the goods and services they receive. The givers and receivers remain strangers to one another.
In the absence of any direct relationship between givers and receivers, there’s an argument that can be made that volunteer managers and supporters almost act as proxy receivers. Volunteer managers have many obligations, as they receive the services that the volunteers they manage offer, such as thanking them for their giving and finding suitable ways to reciprocate the gifts they receive on behalf of service users. The same goes for fundraisers who receive gifts and donations for the cause who, equally, must show gratitude and reciprocate in an appropriate way on behalf of the beneficiaries of the cause.
Managing inappropriate giving is often cited by volunteer managers as one of the toughest issues in volunteer management. How should you refuse the offer of service from a volunteer who doesn’t seem suitable for the role? How do you tell a volunteer that they are no longer required when their form of giving becomes inappropriate?
Obligation to support volunteers
It is certainly difficult to refuse an offer from a volunteer without turning the process into some kind of transaction. Many volunteers are surprised that it is so hard to volunteer. To the general public following gift logic, it makes no sense that their offer to give should not be gratefully received. Yet many in volunteer management use the logic of transaction, we [the organisation] can offer such and such support, if you [the volunteer] can offer this support. The controversy about volunteer agreements is not just about the legalities of ‘consideration’. It’s also about this clash between gift exchange and commodity transaction.
At CSV we believe that everyone can be a volunteer. We reject no one. We believe that volunteering is about not only helping vulnerable or marginalised people but also empowering them to become active in the community, build skills and confidence and increase their options whilst making a difference.
CSV’s long standing policy, with its emphasis on supporting volunteering, makes volunteer manager’s obligation to receive explicit, even if volunteer managers are ‘receivers by proxy’. If we accept that prospective volunteers come bearing gifts, it can alter the way we see the issue of supported volunteering. Many supported volunteering initiatives take the logic of the volunteer manager’s ‘obligation to receive’ to its ultimate conclusion. We need to respect anyone who offers to give by volunteering for a project or service.
Supported volunteering reflects a broader social reality that if someone wants to give, it’s the responsibility of those who invite gifts from prospective volunteers, to do all they can to enable the volunteer to participate and give. In fact, the existence of supported volunteering as an idea is an acceptance of the fact that the line between the helper and the helped is not as clear cut as might be assumed. That’s to say, the relationship between service user and provider is often built on reciprocity and plenty of mutual support. For more of supported volunteering there’s Chances4Volunteering and Supported Volunteering London from GLV.
Gifts are often not given to anyone in particular. They are made public (on web pages) and thereby made available to anyone who cares to make use of them. An application or some information does not really become a gift until someone ï¬nds it and makes use of it.
On the web the receiver is often unknown to the person offering the gift.
Gifts are placed on various homepages and ftp sites, and anybody can download a piece of information or an executable ï¬le and use it for various purposes. But this only counts for the Internet in general. The interesting question is in which social context gift giving on the Internet gets its social meaning. The focus for the production of meaning in the gift economy on the Internet is the various kinds of communities in which people share some understanding of the context they are involved in. They are not unknown to each other, which does not mean that they have to be personally acquainted.
The web mediates between the giver and the receiver in an interesting way. The fact that gifts online are often not given to anyone in particular, means the obligation to receive is much weaker than it would be if it was played out in the same way between two people face to face. It’s often time and space that separates giver from receiver online, while with more traditional giving through a charity it is an organisation that mediates the relationship between giver and receiver.
As the obligation to receive can be much weaker on the web, often giver and receiver are brought together only once the receiver decides to make the connection. Typically receivers can make use of the gift anonymously, should it be posted online on say a forum or a social network. This anonymity can allow the receiver to dodge the social connection should they want to. In this situation online, it’s the prerogative of the receiver to contact and connect with the giver. It’s a reversal of the process offline where two people give and receive face to face.
How will this new world where giving is driven by the receivers change the way we volunteer? This is an issue I’ll be looking at in a future post :- )
Giving makes our connections more meaningful. The groups and networks that we build and where we live out our lives, are strengthened by the giving that they sustain and foster.
Volunteering is a social construct. It is built on the more essential concept of giving (i.e. giving is part of what it means to be human), but volunteering is a very specific kind of giving. Volunteering, as the idea has developed through the 20th Century, is about our need or desire to have meaningful connections with those we share the planet with.
In fact, I think we can say more than that: volunteering is built on the idea of giving to strangers.
Take a common current definition of volunteering in the UK:
“Any activity which involves spending time, unpaid, doing something which aims to benefit someone (individuals or groups) other than or in addition to close relatives, or to benefit the environment.”
The 1997 Police Act says something pretty similar: a volunteer is ‘a person engaged in an activity which involves spending time, unpaid (except for travel and other approved out-of-pocket expenses), doing something which aims to benefit some third party other than or in addition to a close relative‘.
This phrase ‘other than or in addition to close relatives’ evokes this idea that volunteering is about giving to strangers. It is a suggestion that volunteering is about going beyond your personal networks of friends and family. Perhaps the term ‘close friends’ is omitted from these definitions because of how problematic it is to define the term ‘friends’. Certainly, it’s not hard to find earlier research that discounted activities that just benefited family and friends as being consistent with a definition of volunteering.
For example, from different research from the mid-1990s it possible summarise four key elements of a general definition of volunteering (Cnaan & Amrofell, 1994; Cnaan, Handy, & Wadsworthe, 1996; Wilson, 2000). See also “Public Perception of “Who is a Volunteer”: An Examination of the Net-cost Approach from a Cross-Cultural Perspective” 2000, Cnaan et al (PDF):
it is non-obligatory and performed of one’s free will;
it is not paid for or otherwise compensated;
it is an activity for the benefit of others (not family or friends); and
it is done either within an organizational context or as a long-term behavior.
To choose to act in recognition of a need, with an attitude of social responsibility and without concern for monetary profit, going beyond one’s basic obligations.
This idea of going beyond your ‘basic obligations’ is clarified by Susan Ellis on the Energize site as excluding “service done without remuneration, but within the reasonable expectations of being a family member (such as caring for a sick child or aging parent)” as being volunteering.
In “Who Cares? Toward an Integrated Theory of Volunteer Work” from 1997 by Wilson and Musick volunteering is defined as “unpaid work provided to parties to whom the worker owes no contractual, familial or friendship obligations“.
What is a stranger?
So if volunteering is not with people you know personally and intimately, sociologically how can we understand people we don’t know in this sense? Georg Simmel wrote in The Stranger (PDF) in 1908:
“The Stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people”.
Simmel was commenting on the social reality at the turn of the 20th Century of increasingly urbanised and industrialised societies. If you take the modern experience of travelling to work on public transport, it’s possible to get a sense of Simmel’s stranger, they are all people you are sharing the personal experience of commuting with, but they are also socially distant.
Simmel went further. He emphasized that “strangeness” as an element of social interaction was in all our social relationships. Degrees of closeness and remoteness are characteristic of all relationships, but what was different was the increased numbers of strangers in any modern society, i.e. people with which we have this particular proportion of closeness and remoteness.
Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, it can be seen that usage of the term ‘stranger’ peaked massively in 1840s-50s and then has declined through the 20th Century. Despite this, I think it provides insights into how we understand the more recent concept of volunteering.
Safety of strangers
In “The Stranger Transformed: Conceptualizing On and Offline Stranger Disclosure” by Mary E. Virnoche (PDF). These characteristics of Simmel’s stranger are broken down:
Not belonging – established by the stranger’s absence of physical presence in a particular locality or group at its beginnings.
Mobility – marked by the stranger’s fluidity of association: the likelihood that he will leave the area and discontinue the possibility of association.
Objectivity – of Simmel’s stranger is assured by a lack of long-term personal investment into the happenings of the group into which he has stumbled.
Abstract commonality – the commonalities that the stranger establishes are abstract in nature, such as nationality, race or occupation.
Virnoche picks up on these characteristics and points out that interactions with strangers actually open up safe space. This may hint at the reason for the success of volunteering as strangers, with service users who are strangers. The type of giving makes the most of the safe space that exists between strangers. This sense of safety comes from the fluidity, the relative ease of breaking an association. The control over the degree of anonymity if the contact is mediated, and the opportunity to select strangers based on what you have in common. Volunteering mediated by the web is particularly adapted to this situation.
“The characteristics of not belonging and mobility can be understood as factors contributing to a perceived safe space for interaction. Safe space is constructed in mediated communication through variation in the synchronicity of exchanges (temporal separation), as well as actual and perceived spatial separation between those making the exchanges.
In addition, the spatial separation generates an assumption of objectivity. Unlike Simmel’s stranger who maintained the control over mobility or locking in safe space, the strangers of mediated communication generally share this control. Control over safe space comes in the form of perceived and actual anonymity. How easy is it for a stranger to intrude into another’s everyday life once the association has been broken?”
To expand on this sense of historical context for this idea of volunteering to give to strangers, Richard Titmuss noted this sense of safety of giving to strangers when he wrote about blood donation in “The Gift Relationship“:
Unlike gift-exchange in traditional societies, there is in the free gift of blood to unnamed strangers no contract of custom, no legal bond, no functional determinism, no situations of discriminatory power, domination, constraint or compulsion, no sense of shame or guilt, no gratitude imperative¦
¦(S)ocial gifts and actions carrying no explicit or implicit individual right to a return gift or action are forms of ˜creative altruism’¦They are creative in the sense that the self is realised with the help of anonymous others. (p 279)
It seems counter-intuitive to see the safety in the stranger relationship which may be behind the growth of the phenomenon of giving to strangers. The decline of hitchiking in the UK is put down, at least in part, to this reluctance to give to those you don’t know. Joe Moran, author of On Roads: A Hidden History, gives a number of reasons for this decline in hitchiking including this article in the Guardian (A guide to hitchhiking’s decline):
It is not that we became more selfish, but that the technological and economic changes of Thatcherism made it possible to withdraw from the world. The drivers of 1970s cars would probably have welcomed the company of hitchers to distract them from the boredom and discomfort of their dodgy suspensions and badly equipped cabins. Now cars have ergonomic driving seats, remote-controlled iPods and automatic temperature controls. Why would we invite a sweaty stranger into this snug haven?
Is it safety, or is it that we’re just too snug? In 2009, Paul Smith, a Guardian journalist, set himself a challenge. He wanted to see how far he could get by only relying on the accommodation and travel that followers on Twitter offered him. He called his project Twitchhiker. It was a fundraising challenge for money for Charity Water. In the end, he got to New Zealand. In his list of rules he did refer to safety:
If there’s more than one offer on the table, I get to choose which I take. If there’s only one, I have to take it within 48 hours. I’m not entirely happy about this bit. If any part of this challenge is going to see me dead in a ditch or under a patio, it’s this part.
Compare hitchiking with a web equivalent: Couchsurfing. CouchSurfing International is a not for profit organisation: “we envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect.” This idea echoes the idea at the beginning of this post: giving creates meaningful connections.
In “Surfing a web of trust: Reputation and Reciprocity on CouchSurfing.com” (PDF) by Debra Lauterbach, Hung Truong, Tanuj Shah, Lada Adamic. Here’s how couchsurfing works in a couple of sentences: Individual A may host B, but B need not reciprocate directly by hosting A. Rather B may host another member of the CouchSurfing community. Or, if B is not motivated to reciprocate, they may opt to not host anyone at all and instead only surf.
The website aims to develop a community, where members have reputations online which help others decide who to accept as a guest or who to choose as a host. Their instructions state, The vouching system on CouchSurfing.com is a security measure. We take it VERY SERIOUSLY. Respecting the significance of vouching is essential to the integrity of the network… It is very important that you ONLY vouch for people that you have met in person and know well enough to believe that he or she is trustworthy. This kind of vouching system is the web’s solution to the hitchiking problem. It’s ironic (Simmel’s association of the stranger with urbanisation) that reputation systems, such as that used by Couchsurfing, actually favour those who live in cities, over those living in more remote parts:
While this could be reflection of a healthy web of trust, there are indications that vouches may be given too freely. For example, many of the vouches were exchanged between individuals who had met through CS meetings, and were CouchSurfing friends. Anecdotally, many members complain on the site’s message boards about this issue, saying that these vouches artificially inflate the trustworthiness of those who have the benefit of living in cities with many CS meetings.
Onyx and Bullen (1997) found that social capital and cohesion was higher in rural areas than in the cities. It seems valid that social networks will be stronger in relatively ˜closed communities’ where face-to-face contact is frequent, there are small numbers of residents and few strangers. However, there is an argument that a key element of social capital is contact with strangers and the capacity to overcome differences and embrace diversity (Hughes, Bellamy and Black, 1999). This is something that Couchsurfing would seem to point to.
At this point it would interesting to ponder what this experience might say about the debate about criminal record checks for volunteers and whether they reinforce or undermine trust between strangers who give- but I’ll leave that for another post.
Volunteering is about personal relationships
It’s Jacques Godbout in “L’esprit du don” (PDF) who traces the link between the growth of giving to strangers and the increase in volunteering and voluntary organisations:
Before in history the primary bond for gift-giving was along lines of kinship or friendship (see Marshall Sahlins, Stoneage economics and ‘the original affluent society‘). The modern gift has its roots in religion, in particular Christianity, according to Godbout, but the link now is much looser if it exists at all. Now this kind of giving to strangers is something that people of all social backgrounds are involved in, as witnessed with the phenomenon of volunteering (giving time as Godbout calls it).
Given that so many definitions exclude the intention of benefiting family as volunteering, it’s ironic how important the idea of bonding like a family is to volunteer retention and support. For example, in this article, “Firefighters Volunteering Beyond Their Duty: An Essential Asset in Rural Communities” (PDF), it’s clear how important the sense of brotherhood is between volunteer and career firefighters alike. In the study one volunteer firefighter said:
We’re a great big family. That’s what it boils down to… He’s like a brother. I wouldn’t mind asking him anything I would ask my own brother.
This kind of association, although it’s commenting on the relationship between volunteers, could also be about volunteers and the beneficiaries of the service they offer. This sentiment suggests that it is not that simple to separate giving to family and giving to strangers. In fact, many volunteers and service users might agree that initially the two are strangers, but through the commitment of volunteering friendship is possible. This is undoubtedly the case, the question then is: is there a point where friendship between a volunteer and service users grows to such an extent that it is no longer volunteering under the terms of many definitions of volunteering, i.e. it’s no longer go beyond your basic obligations as a friend?
I’m sure many volunteers have been presented with this dilemma in all sorts of situations. And it aptly demonstrates the tension that Simmel set out to capture in his concept of the stranger: we’re close, yet we’re far away. Many volunteers who’ve developed a strong friendship through supporting and accompanying a person in a vulnerable time in their lives will understand this tension. It goes to the heart of what being a volunteer is.
Examples of volunteering as giving to strangers
Advisors (helplines and online advice) – volunteering with an organisation like the Samaritans is a really good example of this kind of volunteering of giving to strangers. The anonymity afforded by the telephone and email service is crucial, both for the advisor and the service user. It enables the volunteer advisor to provide the user with the safety referred to above, during moments of extreme vulnerability.
Mentoring and befriending – roles where volunteers befriend strangers, it’s key to set clear interpersonal boundaries that ensure a friendship doesn’t go beyond the volunteer’s role and protects the potentially vulnerable service user. The relationship is often time limited. At the end of the period other volunteers may replace the previous volunteer to ensure that the relationship remains appropriate. It a sense, the objective is to ensure that volunteer and service user remain to a certain extent strangers.
There are two kinds of explanation of this caring for strangers. One is the particularistic model (care based on caring for those closely connected), and the other is a civic model of care (care based on sense of common citizenship).
“According to the particularistic model, our ability to care requires reference to a concrete other and the partiality of our feelings for them. Carers view each recipient of care as an ˜individual with a concrete history, identity and affective-emotional constitution’ (Seyla Benhabib “Situating the Self“, p.159). According to Benhabib, caring cannot be understood in the abstract, only in the context of tangible experience and the uniqueness of certain personal relationships. It is because we know them and have feelings for them that we are able to care for them in a way which adequately meets their needs.”
According to this model, volunteering and caring for those beyond our private circle grows out of caring first for those in our private circle:
“Both Wuthnow and Noddings see caring as a propensity or attitude to act on behalf of the other which individuals first learn within the family. Care first arises ˜naturally’ or voluntarily in the course of our private relations with our intimates. Wuthnow tries to take this a step further by addressing the institutional means of exporting care into the public arena, arguing that volunteering has a key role to play in this process. For him, volunteering acts as the ˜institutional go-between’ linking the private and public world which allows care to flow on from private to public.”
The explanation then for caring for strangers depends on connections, in the words of Wilkinson, of “partiality or on concrete experiences of care… on the potential for human connection. Reflection leads to recognition of common vulnerability and shared human need. It is this which allows us to make connections with strangers.” This also explains how giving makes these kinds of connections through volunteering meaningful, i.e. because we can relate these experiences to what we have experienced personally.
The civic model of care is based on the concept of social capital developed by Robert Putnam in what’s effectively a communitarian approach. The concept of social capital can explain why “some ordinary citizens are able to reach out to others beyond their own households and the boundaries of their private worlds, to engage with what Michael Ignatieff (1994) described as ˜the needs of strangers‘.” Putnam’s work was an attempt to explain how citizens through civic connections build trust relations despite the lack of particularistic connections between them, i.e. they are strangers.
The first part of Putnam’s answer is generalised reciprocity:
“Generalized reciprocity refers to a continuing relationship of exchange that is at any given time unrequited or imbalanced… [generalised reciprocity involves]¦ mutual expectations that a benefit granted now should be repaid in the future. Friendship, for example, almost always involves generalized reciprocity (Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, 1993, p.172).”
As with the classical theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville (who many associate with the beginnings of Communitarianism), the idea is that through engagement with civil society (strong civic culture) citizens understand how their self-interest is served by supporting fellow citizens. This civic culture encourages reciprocity:
I’ll do this for you now, without expecting anything immediately in return and perhaps without even knowing you, confident that down the road you or someone else will return the favour (Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 2000, p.134)
This kind of sums up the one of the core principles of Couchsurfing that we mentioned previously. It’s system of vouching, was not just for the purposes of establishing reputations for the community’s members, but also for promoting generalised reciprocity. In the table below Wilkinson and Bittman compare the two models of care outlined above:
Wilkinson and Bittman emphasise the advantage of the civic approach over the particularistic approach, is that it provides for an equality of relationships. This rejoins something Godbout mentioned as a characteristic of the modern giving: “personnes de tout milieu social participent”, i.e. that it provides a level playing field for all to give. The civic approach holds that extending the principles of private care leads to familism and to hierarchical relationships of dependency.
Based on research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Time Use Survey in 1997 it’s possible to make the observation that “people with high needs and high dependence are more likely to receive care from close relatives. In contrast public generosity is more likely to be directed to needy but more independent friends and strangers”.
According to Wilkinson and Bittman this table shows that: “providing care and assistance to someone within your own household is associated with below average commitments of time to (any other kind of) volunteering. In contrast, providing assistance to persons living outside the private circle of co-residence increases the propensity to engage in volunteering”. In other words, there’s a link between one form of public engagement leading to other forms of public engagement. One kind of volunteering activity tends to little to more kinds of volunteering resulting in denser civic connections between citizens.
In fact, Wilkinson and Bittman are interested in Simmel and his concept of sociability “as the play-form of sociation”. Sociation refers to any process of social interaction which contributes to the formation of a social group. Simmel thinks that while some forms of social interaction are a means to an end such as marriage or joining a union, sociability exists for itself, and is and end in itself.
“As Simmel puts it, there is a sort of freedom possible as a participant of the group, the dynamics of which would assume an entirely different meaning in the context of a more intimate encounter with friends. In public gatherings, one adopts a certain style of conduct with others which requires putting one’s differences aside. For Simmel, it is this kind of connection which determines our relations with others in public. And it is this kind of connection which gives sociability the potential to build solidarity with strangers.”
This idea of sociability is what Wilkinson and Bittman believe explains the personal foundations of the civic culture that explains volunteering like caring. To evidence this they looked at television viewing habits of those caring for someone outside their household. The results showed that those caring for someone outside their household watched significantly less television, than those who lived with the person they were caring for. For Mitszal, sociability means ˜public relations between equals‘, gets us back to this idea of equality. ˜Public’ conveys the sense of a public sphere.
Wilkinson and Bittman reach two conclusions. First, caring for someone you’re living with is isolating and privatising in nature. As a result, people in this situation lose the impetus for making more generalised social connections with others. The second conclusion, is that socialising in public outside the confines of one’s own private home “promotes additional forms of social connectedness, and importantly a primary impetus for civil behaviour” which for Wilkinson and Bittman is the basis for a civic approach to care.
Web and sociability
In societies where we’re surrounded by strangers, giving activities, such as volunteering, are vital as they help to connect us with those we live amongst beyond family and friends. These concepts of sociability and social capital may explain how giving to strangers by volunteering helps build civic culture and a civil society.
It’s interesting that Wilkinson and Bittman used television viewing habits as a measure of the absence of sociability. This assumes that television is a passive activity. What though of the potential for using the web as a platform for sociability?
This leaves the question open as to whether those who care for a loved one they are living with are simply less able to get into volunteering because they have less time available and less opportunity. It’s important to take into consideration the opportunities the web opens up for carers to share and socialise publicly (for example Carers UK’s forums). What role can the web play in helping to develop the growth of civic culture? How can the web help those already giving heavily to family, also have the opportunity to give to strangers by volunteering? This is a question we’ll return to in a future post.
Theodore Zeldin, a philosopher, (author of Conversation) regularly organises what he calls Feasts of Strangers where people who don’t know each other can have conversations on all sorts of topics.
In ‘The Origins of Virtue‘ Matt Ridley writes: Economists, who founded their whole discipline on the question ˜What’s in it for the individual?’, have begun to back away. Much of the innovation in economics in recent years has been based on the alarming discovery by economists that people are motivated by something other than material self-interest. (pp 131-2). It’s like the George Mallory school of motivation theory. Mallory is quoted as responding to a reporter’s question, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with the words: “Because it’s there”. In the same way, do we just volunteer because we can?
Influenced by research in economics, do we have a tendency to overcomplicate why we give? Isn’t it really very simple? Matt Ridley again:
The virtuous are virtuous for no other reason than that it enables them to join forces with others who are virtuous, to mutual benefit. (p 147)
Certainly when we ask volunteers why they volunteer, the results of surveys seem to confirm the obvious. Take the recent Citizenship Survey (2009):
According to the research, ask someone why they volunteer, and most people respond: ‘to help others’. It’s a bit like asking someone why they eat bread, and getting the reply that it’s because they like ingesting food. It seems like a tautology to say people volunteer because they want to help others. Helping others is what volunteering’s about. Instead, it’s the values that underpin our concept of ‘helping others’ that are fascinating.
The discussion of values quickly takes this simple question about why people volunteer into the realms of morality. In fact, there aren’t many subjects that are more researched in volunteering than studying the motivations of those who give. But it’s rare for research, particularly recently, in volunteering motivation to focus on these ethical issues.
What we know about the motivations of those who volunteer
Why do we volunteer? By understanding people’s motivations better, so the thinking goes, we can improve the experience of those who volunteer and understand those who don’t. We need to know how to reach out to those who aren’t engaged by the volunteering we’re offering.
The psychology of motivation happens to be a subject that researchers from many different fields have been studying for many years. Why do we do what we do? What motivates us in our work? How can we be more productive? How can we be happy? The subject cuts across so many issues, but at it’s heart it’s a question about what it is to be human.
The Altruism-Egoism Split
There’s a philosophical split. One way to split a morality based on the values of altruism and egoism is to contrast the thinking of Auguste Comte with that of Ayn Rand.
Positivism alone holds at once both a noble and true language when it urges us to live for others. This, the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and of duty. Implicitly and indirectly it sanctions our personal instincts, as the necessary conditions of our existence, with the proviso that they must be subordinate to those of altruism. With this limitation, we are even ordered to gratify our personal instincts, with the view of fitting ourselves to be better servants of Humanity, whose we are entirely. (p.313)
Humanity, or living for others, is a superior moral value, to our personal (selfish and egoistic) instincts. This was forcefully opposed by Ayn Rand ‘Philosophy: Who Needs It?‘. Take this quote about giving:
Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: No. Altruism says: Yes.
For Rand, this way of looking at the world amounted to ethical egoism. As an objectivist she stated: “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows” [source]. For Rand, the mysticism of altruism from a thinker like Comte, was a denial of who we really were as humans.
Altruism and this ethical controversy that surrounds it, can feel very distant from the everyday reasons why people volunteer.
Before we look at how these issues affect the way we think about volunteering, another way to understand this debate about value of altruism is to look at how the theory of evolution has shaped our understanding of how cooperation develops. Our modern conception of altruism has been enormously influenced by biology, and the growth of the field of sociobiology. This summing up from Wikipedia:
Darwin’s theory of natural selection is a profoundly powerful explanation of how evolution works; its undoubted success strongly suggests an inherently antagonistic relationship between unrelated individuals. Yet cooperation is prevalent, seems beneficial, and even seems to be essential to human society. Explaining this seeming contradiction, and accommodating cooperation, and even altruism, within Darwinian theory is a central issue in the theory of cooperation.
Theories on cooperation perhaps start with Peter Kropotkin whose book, ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution’ sketched out how cooperation was just as significant a factor in evolution as competition. Richard Dawkins and the work he’s done points out that at the level of the gene, genes are selfish. But this doesn’t mean that individuals need to be selfish. Selfish genes may programme inidividuals to be altruistic. As Dawkins puts it: “Selfish at the genetic level, which may or may not programme altruism at the individual level”. Dawkins points to the work of WD Hamilton as demonstrating how evolution can account for helping others who aren’t necessarily close relatives. In terms of understanding motives for volunteering, the work of Robert Trivers, began to change the way we understood altruism as a function of reciprocity.
This profile of Robert Trivers in The Guardian provides some of the background to this thinking behind reciprocal altruism (I’ve added the emphasis):
“Trivers came up with the notion of reciprocal altruism. In plain language, this said that self-sacrifice could be understood as self-interest providing there was a chance the beneficiary would repay the deed in the future.”
“This kindliness became part of human nature, Trivers argued, because kind instincts were rewarded and this happened because our ancestors lived sufficiently long lives in small stable groups to keep track of who owed whom favours. The great originality of the theory is not that it says that we are under certain circumstances naturally benevolent. Plenty of people had made that observation before. What no one had seen was that this benevolence requires a very strong sense of fairness if it is to become an established instinct. Fairness, or justice, has its roots for Trivers in the determination to see that other people are not cheating us, and taking favours without giving anything in return.”
“The idea that we have moral sentiments because they are useful and profitable seems to many people to misunderstand or deny the nature of morality. The whole point of altruistic behaviour is that we do it without thought of reward – sometimes, without any thought at all, as when rescuing people from drowning, or pulling them back from an oncoming car.”
Trivers explains in these ideas in his own words:
“Altruism is suffering a cost to confer a benefit. Reciprocal altruism is the exchange of such acts between individuals so as to produce a net benefit on both sides.” – ‘The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’
This difference is key, it provides a scientific basis for explaining how altruism can in fact benefit both the giver and the receiver. The distinction is the factor of time and the ability to keep track of these acts of altruism. He captures this in the statement below (my emphasis):
Under certain conditions natural selection favours these altruistic behaviours because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them.
We are changing our perspective beyond the individuals to the society made up of individuals. It is important to bring in the work of Robert Axelrod ‘The Evolution of Cooperation‘ who used Game Theory to demonstrate how egoism and altruism can be evolutionarily advantageous. Much of the social and political theory about cooperation today is heavily influenced by Axelrod.
A psychological understanding
In contrast to a Darwinian theory were altruism is or isn’t programmed, there’s potential to look at altruism at the level of psychological motives. There’s a Darwinian foundation, but it is crucial to look at social history to understand the particular forms that altruism actually takes. Just as now we’d argue against Kant’s idea that benevolence comes out of our sense of duty to pure reason, so we require an explanation of altruistic acts that goes beyond genetic programming. Theories of cooperation cross over with our understanding of psychology. Another way to understand the issue of altruism, and why we might be motivated to carry out altruistic acts, is by analysing what’s happening psychologically. Looking at the theory of someone like Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs gives a flavour of this. His classic quote from The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (p.238):
Classic economic theory, based as it is on an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self actualization and the love for the highest values.
Maslow’s work brought the ‘highest values’ back into the debate. May be it was possible for people to simply help because they want to help. There is a massive literature in psychology of research that looks into what is commonly termed prosocial behaviour. It’s fascinating to consider all the external factors that can affect the likelihood of one person helping another, e.g. witnessing the accident makes people more likely to help, the amount of other potential helpers, etc. Tom Farsides, a lecturer in Social Psychology from the University of Sussex, has a really useful lecture presentation that gives a good overview of the recent psychological research on helping others. Farsides recently co-authored with Sally Hibbert a report for NCVO on Charitable Giving and Donor Motivation (PDF).
Tom Farsides’s associated paper (PDF): “How we can help rather than Give us your money – some implications of psychological research for increasing charitable giving”, looks at those who give for egoistic or altruistic reasons.
When egoistically motivated, people are likely to respond favourably to exchange opportunities that they think work in their favour. To increase ˜giving’ from people with egoistic motives requires promising to give them more of what they want in return for their greater level of investment. They are likely to respond unfavourably to requests or demands for help that do not seem to work in their favour.
When altruistically motivated, people are likely to respond favourably to communal opportunities, i.e., opportunities to work co-operatively with others who share their altruistic motives. To increase giving from altruistically motivated people requires promising that their extra help will be necessary and sufficient to improve the welfare of those they are altruistically motivated to help (but without involving ˜excessive’ costs to them or to others they care about). Altruistically motivated people want to help. They are likely to resent suggestions that they will ˜help’ only when it is in their own self-interest to do so. Unless they can clearly see potential benefits for those they care about, people with altruistic motives are likely to respond unfavourably to suggestions that their help can or needs to be ˜bought.’ People with genuinely altruistic motives will help as much as they can, whenever they see an opportunity to do so, and they will do so gladly.
Farsides argues that it’s impossible for charities to appeal to both successfully, because the two are mutually exclusive. In the long run, it’s in the interests of charities to focus on those with altruistic motives and develop by creating more opportunities to give. This is a conclusion that seems to chime with the idea of ‘crowding out‘ that we touched on in the previous post.
Motivations of volunteers
The work of the group including EG Clary, Mark Snyders, RD Ridge, Arthur Stukas and others on the motivations of volunteers has become a key reference point in the literature of what motivates people to volunteer. In their work “Understanding and assessing the motivations of volunteers: A functional approach Clary et al“, they summarised the different motivations into the following categories:
Definitions of motivational functions - Clary et al (1998)
For the final part of this post I’m going to focus on the fascinating study conducted by Judy Esmond and Patrick Dunlop. It was called “Developing the Volunteer Motivation Inventory to Assess the Underlying Motivational Drives of Volunteers in Western Australia”. The final report can be found here (PDF).
Over a period of a number of years, the project developed a unique Volunteer Motivation Inventory (VMI) consisting of the following categories (these are direct quotes from the final report). These categories group together similar reasons for why people volunteer:
“1. Values (Va) whereby the individual volunteers in order to express or act on firmly held beliefs of the importance for one to help others (Clary, Snyder & Ridge, 1992). This scale consists of five statements, e.g. ˜I volunteer because I feel it is important to help others’.
2. Reciprocity (Rp) whereby the individual volunteers in the belief that ˜what goes around comes around’. In the process of helping others and ˜doing good’ their volunteering work will also bring about good things for the volunteer themselves. This scale consists of two statements, e.g. ˜I volunteer because I believe that you receive what you put out in the world’.
3. Recognition (Rn) whereby the individual is motivated to volunteer by being recognised for their skills and contribution and enjoys the recognition volunteering gives them. This scale consists of five statements, e.g. ˜I like to work with a volunteer agency, which treats their volunteers and staff alike’.
4. Understanding (Un) whereby the individual volunteers to learn more about the world through their volunteering experience or exercise skills that are often unused (Clary, Snyder & Ridge, 1992). This scale consists of five statements, e.g. ˜I volunteer because I can learn how to deal with a variety of people’.
5. Self-Esteem (SE) whereby the individual volunteers to increase their own feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. This scale consists of five statements, e.g. ˜I volunteer because volunteering makes me feel like a good person’.
6. Reactivity (Rc) whereby the individual volunteers out of a need to ˜heal’ and address their own past or current issues. This scale consists of four statements, e.g. ˜Volunteering gives me a chance to try to ensure people do not have to go through what I went through’.
7. Social (So) whereby the individual volunteers and seeks to conform to normative influences of significant others (e.g. friends or family) (Clary, Snyder & Ridge, 1992). This scale consists of five statements, e.g. ˜I volunteer because people I’m close to volunteer’.
8. Protective (Pr) whereby the individual volunteers as a means to reduce negative feelings about themselves, e.g., guilt or to address personal problems (Clary, Snyder & Ridge, 1992). This scale consists of five statements, e.g. ˜I volunteer because doing volunteer work relieves me of some of the guilt for being more fortunate than others’).
9. Social Interaction (SI) whereby the individual volunteers to build social networks and enjoys the social aspects of interacting with others. This scale consists of four statements, e.g. ˜I volunteer because volunteering provides a way for me to make new friends’.
10. Career Development (CD) whereby the individual volunteers with the prospect of making connections with people and gaining experience and field skills that may eventually be beneficial in assisting them to find employment. This scale consists of four statements, e.g. ˜I volunteer because I feel that I make important work connections through volunteering’.”
Motivated from without or within
It’s worth looking at the questions that interviewees were asked by Esmond and Dunlop (see list below) to measure what was the mix of motivations for each volunteer. What’s interesting is that the top two stand out as pretty much the only two where the emphasis is outwards. In other words, volunteering to meet “a need in the community” and “make the world a better place”, are both examples where what is happening to others is primary, and what is happening to the volunteer themselves is secondary.
Many of the other questions reflect motivations based primarily on what is happening to the volunteer, and world without is secondary. For example, volunteering because of how it makes me feel (treatment as a volunteer, how useful they feel, how good the volunteering makes them feel, etc.). Another example of this is the motivation to volunteer because of what can be acquired, e.g. friends, skills, knowledge, networks, etc.
Here are Esmond and Dunlop’s questions used in their studies (note that they are ranked here based on the results of their research, i.e. statements, that interviewees agree or disagree with, at the top of the list were ranked as more important to their reason for volunteering):
Developing the Volunteer Motivation Inventory: Rank order of importance for all volunteer motivation index items
I volunteer because I believe I am meeting a need in the community in my volunteering role.
I volunteer because I feel that volunteering makes the world a better place.
I volunteer because I believe that you receive what you put out in the world.
I volunteer because I feel that volunteering gives me a better understanding of what life is about.
I like to work with a volunteer agency which treats their volunteers and staff alike.
Being appreciated by my volunteer agency is important to me.
I volunteer because volunteering makes me feel useful.
I volunteer because I feel that volunteering is a feel-good experience.
I would very much like my children to follow my volunteering experience.
Being respected by staff and volunteers at the agency is not important to me.
I do not see volunteering as part of my value system.
I volunteer because I feel that volunteering has given me the opportunity to appreciate the differences in people.
I have not made many friends through volunteering.
I volunteer because I believe that what goes around comes around.
Volunteering has had little effect on my self-esteem.
I volunteer because volunteering makes me feel like a good person.
I do not need feedback on my volunteer work.
I volunteer because I do not believe the community is doing enough to help those I assist as a volunteer.
I volunteer because I do not believe the government is doing enough to help those I assist as a volunteer.
I like to help people because I have been in difficult positions myself.
I feel more settled in myself after volunteering.
I have not changed as a person through volunteering.
I volunteer because I believe everyone should volunteer.
I volunteer because volunteering provides a way for me to make new friends. (inwards)
I volunteer because volunteering keeps me busy. (inwards)
I often relate my volunteering experience to my own personal life. (inwards)
I do not think it is important that the skills I acquire through volunteering will help me in my employment. (inwards)
My past experiences have nothing to do with my reasons for volunteering.
I feel that it is important to receive recognition for my volunteering work.
The social opportunities provided by the agency are important to me.
I volunteer because volunteering gives me an opportunity to build my work skills.
I volunteer because I feel that volunteering is a way to build ones social networks.
I volunteer because volunteering fits in with my religious beliefs.
I volunteer because I look forward to the social events that volunteering affords me.
Volunteering gives me a chance to try to ensure people do not have to go through what I went through.
I volunteer because volunteering makes me feel important.
Volunteering helps me deal with some of my own problems.
I volunteer because my family has always been involved in volunteering.
I volunteer because I feel that I make important work connections through volunteering.
I have no plans to find employment through volunteering.
I volunteer because I feel that volunteering will help me to find out about employment opportunities.
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
This discussion of sorting out the motivations that have an internal focus and those that have an external focus, should not be confused with the debate in behavioural economics about intrinsic and extrinsic factors of motivation. Intrinsic motivation coming from factors that the individual can control, e.g. the amount of effort put in, and extrinsic motivation coming from factors that are beyond the individual’s control, e.g. incentives and obligations (carrots and sticks). The work of Bruno Frey is a great example of some of these issues.
It designates those activities which are undertaken ‘for their own sake’ (Deci, 1971). The reward thus lies in the activity itself and does not come from the outside as is the case with extrinsic motivation.
When we ask whether volunteering is a means to an end or an end in itself, we’re essentially asking about the role of intrinsic and extrinsic factors of motivation in volunteering. It provokes all kinds of questions, such as, is it appropriate to use extrinsic factors if they crowd out intrinsic factors? It’s this crowding out effect that ultimately worries Farsides in his discussion of altruism and egoism and the motivations of givers of donations to charities. Appealing to the egoists, crowds out the altruists.
The role of the web in motivating us to volunteer
How do we square theory about extrinsic and intrinsic motivations with the results of research into what motivates people to volunteer? How can external factors, i.e. one’s volunteers have little control over, be the one’s that are the main drivers for people volunteering?
One explanation might be that volunteering can convert extrinsic factors into intrinsic factors. In other words, what might feel like extrinsic factors, i.e. things beyond an individual’s control, are changed by the nature of the volunteering and the structure of the volunteering project. The way the volunteering is designed and carried out can influence what we understand as factors within our control and factors beyond our control.
Volunteering can change the extrinsic factors, into intrinsic factors. Volunteers are then chiefly motivated by external factors because those are what gives individuals the sense that by volunteering, joining with others, they can begin to affect issues and factors that on their own they feel are beyond their control. Volunteering driven purely by looking inwards would not be satisfying.
So volunteering is about empowerment, it’s about self-determination as Deci calls it. Reciprocity, as identified by Trivers, is one of the key ways for givers to be able to take on extrinsic factors. It’s about understanding the reciprocal links that potentially exist between us, about living for others, and understanding how that benefits each of us individually. Volunteering at its best is a practical altruism attuned perfectly to what we find most motivating in the world.
The web it seems to me has a role to play in helping to convert extrinsic factor beyond an individuals control, into intrinsic factors that are within our control. By creating networks and groups, we can suddenly mobilise enough numbers behind factors to break them down and take them on.
One day, it might really be as simple as enough people deciding to bring about social change, for that change to come about. One day.
Last week, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics announced that it’s running a consultation into whether more people should “be expected to donate organs, eggs and sperm and, if so, how far can we ethically go in encouraging them to donate?” A lot of the questions focus on the role of incentives and giving in delivering healthcare. For example:
“Do you think that it is in any way better, morally speaking, to provide human bodily material or volunteer for a first-in-human trial for free, rather than for some form of compensation? Does the type or purpose of bodily material or medicine being tested make a difference?”
Whatever the results of this consultation, it’s clear that the nature of giving continues to prove controversial. At what point do incentives turn ‘giving’ into straightforward ‘exchange’? Perhaps, the reason for this controversy is that the issues go to the heart of our conception of the ‘common good’.
Incentives and volunteering
The incentives question is one that we’ve been wrestling with in volunteering for many years. Do incentives and obligations fundamentally alter the nature of volunteering?
For this post, I’m going to look at the research on how mixing markets and giving has influenced the development of blood and organ donation and what the implications are for our conception of volunteering.
Markets are not mere mechanisms. They embody certain norms. They presuppose, and also promote, certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is a mistake. Markets leave their mark. Often market incentives erode or crowd out non-market incentives.
For Sandel, many aspects of our life together can be “corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities”. We need to think carefully about when to use exchange (markets) to deliver goods and services, and when to create other means to deliver necessary goods and services. Our decision can’t simply be to choose the delivery mechanism that’s most efficient, it also has to be about how we value the goods in question.
Sandel’s wider concern, as sketched out in his book Democracy’s Discontent, is how prevailing political ideology (particularly in the US) is wedded to individualism which ultimately leads to us all feeling ever more disempowered. He’s interested in how we can better recognise the interdependence of citizens and the need for civic association. This brings us back to the role of volunteering, but sets it against this ideological backdrop of how we understand the motivations behind social behaviour.
Market logic vs logic of giving
In the 1960′s, economists, particularly those in the Chicago School, such as Gary Becker, began to develop Rational Action Theory (RAT), also known as Rational Choice Theory. As the theory took hold, it began to be applied beyond simply explaining the market and monetary exchanges, to all sorts of other kinds of social behaviour. It developed out of utilitarian philosophy of the 19th century. This thinking focussed on individuals as self-interested actors who think rationally about attaining rational goals.
Elie Halevy famously described it as ‘dogmatic self-interestedness’. Many criticisms of the theory, essentially make the point that as social theory, it turns on a really hollow conception of what it means to be human. The other problem with Rational Choice Theory is that it mixes ‘what is’ (positive), that we are rational and self-interested actors, with ‘what ought to be’ (normative), that we should be rational and self-interested actors.
Alain Caille suggests gift economy theory provides an alternative to the dominance of Rational Choice Theory. He draws on the work of anthropologist Marcel Mauss (nephew of Emile Durkheim) who, almost 100 years ago, looked at the ceremonial giving practices. His work suggested that in early societies there were ceremonies that formalised the triple obligation to give, take and return. That is, obligations (a) to give a gift, (b) receive the gift (if you’re offered one), and then (c) respond in turn by giving a gift on to another (not necessarily to the original giver). This kind of early pre-modern giving had nothing to do with charity, instead it was distinctly combative. Caille explains:
Pervaded with aggression and ambivalence, it is an agonistic gift. It is not through economising but in spending and even dilapidating or in accepting to lose his most precious goods that one can make his name grow and acquire prestige.
The goods which are so given, taken and returned (counter-given) generally have no utilitarian value at all. They are valued only as symbols of the social relation they allow to create and feed through activating the unending circulation of a debt, which can be inverted but never liquidated. Gifts are symbols, and they are reciprocal. Through the circulation of those gifts what is secured is the public recognition of the identity and of the value of the parteners, individual or collective engaged in the gifts circulation.
The most famous illustrations of this type of giving are the potlatch of the Kwakiutl Indians (Northwestern Canadian coast) and the kula of the Trobianders. Caille believes we can link modern giving, such as blood donation, to this earlier form of giving that Mauss researched and wrote about in his 1924 book The Gift amongst other places.
Obligations and giving
Jonathan Miller in his radio series charting the rise of the National Health Service in Britain, picked up on the anthropoligical significance of the British semi-ritual of having a cup of tea and a biscuit after giving blood since the very beginnings of large scale blood donation during the Second World War. The ‘tea and biscuit’ tradition has clear parallels with the idea that there is a need to respond in turn to the gift of blood. It’s significance is social, rather than medicinal, since the medicinal benefits of drinking tea after giving blood are minimal.
It’s clear as well that an important driver at the beginning of blood donation, was a way of giving back because a friend or close relative had benefit from donated blood. This continues to be a key driver. Anecdotally, I’ve heard people describe again and again their motivation for volunteering as wanting ‘to give back to the community’.
A clear conclusion of many researching blood donation is that one specific problem of introducing market logic alongside giving blood, breaks this balance of obligations to give and give back. As the incentive to give is increased, it undermines the obligation to give. As a result, there is no net benefit. Michael Sandel again:
“Perhaps the best-known example of market norms eroding or crowding out non-market norms involves the case of blood donation. The sociologist Richard Titmuss compared the United States system, which permitted the buying and selling of blood for transfusion, with the system in the UK which banned financial incentives and relied wholly on donated blood. Titmuss found that rather than improve the quality and supply of blood, the commercialisation of blood led to shortages, inefficiencies and a greater incidence of contaminated blood. His explanation: putting a price on blood turned what had been a gift into a commodity. It changed the norms associated with blood donation. Once blood is bought and sold in the market, people are less likely to feel a moral obligation to give it out of altruism.”
Richard Titmuss’s book ‘The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy’, first published in 1970, is the seminal work in this area. When he wrote the book, he was writing about the NHS as much as he was blood donation: We cannot understand the National Blood Transfusion Service without also understanding the National Health Service, its origins, development and values. (p 60)
Modernisation of giving
In one sense, Titmuss’s work was to ensure giving survived and flourished in modern society. Indeed, one of his objectives was to study “the role of altruism in modern society. [This book] attempts to fuse the politics of welfare and the morality of individual wills. (p 59)
Unlike gift-exchange in traditional societies, there is in the free gift of blood to unnamed strangers no contract of custom, no legal bond, no functional determinism, no situations of discriminatory power, domination, constraint or compulsion, no sense of shame or guilt, no gratitude imperative¦
¦(S)ocial gifts and actions carrying no explicit or implicit individual right to a return gift or action are forms of ˜creative altruism’¦They are creative in the sense that the self is realised with the help of anonymous others. (p 279)
¦In not asking for or expecting any payment of money, these donors signified their belief in the willingness of other men to act altruistically in the future, and join together to make a gift freely available should they have need of it. (p 307)
As individuals (donors were) taking part in the creation of a greater good transcending the good of self-love. To ˜love’ themselves, they recognised the need to ˜love’ strangers. By contrast, one of the functions of atomistic private market systems is to ˜free’ men from any sense of obligation to or for other men, regardless of the consequences to others who cannot reciprocate. (p 307)
From these quotes it’s clear that Titmuss’s project was to modernise giving. What’s interesting is how these ideas can be interpreted today, given the way the web is transforming giving. Are we much more accustomed to giving to strangers via the web?
For Titmuss, a key aspect of modern giving is the idea of giving altruistically to strangers (note volunteering is typically defined as helping non-relatives, i.e. strangers). This modern kind of giving, as Philippe Steiner describes it, is “implicated in a world of radically distant relations, relations among strangers.”
Giving to strangers
There are important echoes here of the ideas of founding sociologist Georg Simmel who identified the stranger in modern society as someone who is far away and close at the same time.
The Stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people. [The Stranger, 1908]
If giving is connected to the values that make us human, the challenge for Titmuss is how to drive and channel giving between strangers. In the case of blood, this means collection, rather than production. We all have access to means of production of blood, no-one has access to the means of mass production. Hence the need to collect. Philippe Steiner links this notion to Karl Polanyi‘s notion of ‘fictitious commodity‘:
“In underlining the fact that blood is collected, Titmuss indicated that it is not a produced good, that it is closely tied to what makes us human, and that when commercialized, it falls into the category of fictitious commodity -like work, money, and land, according to Polanyi.”
Giving is becoming more exchange-like
For Titmuss, part of what makes modern giving efficient is that it overcomes the challenge of collection and recognises that we are giving to strangers. In this way of looking at it, it’s no coincidence the storage facilities for blood came to be known as blood banks (previously simply blood depots) because they act as the mode of exchange between strangers (givers and receivers). Ironically, this more modern type of giving is rather exchange-like. Steiner again:
In modern giving, anonymity is maintained in order to protect the recipient from the affective and symbolic burden of receiving the gift of life. The paradox is that this makes it hard for us to see such giving as a social tie, whereas that value – the affective and symbolic value of a social tie- has generally been the one associated with this form of commerce between human beings.
This built-in anonymity strips out the potential for giving to be combative or aggressive, as it was in pre-modern society. This use of anonymity (or at least the weakening of the social tie) seems to me to be incredibly reminiscent of much of the discussion of the web at this point. The web is excitingly social in as far as it is more efficiently connecting strangers, providing a mode of exchange for givers to give. Current debate about social media is to what extent the web can be used to strengthen social ties.
This notion of efficiently connecting strangers is one I’ll return to in a later post. Particularly interesting is the work of Jacques Godbout ‘L’esprit du don‘ (1992) who looks at how giving between strangers has been behind the growth of the voluntary sector and ‘la vie associative’ in the last few decades across the globe.
Giving is efficient
One of the reasons Titmuss’s work has stood the test of time is because he both defends an ideal social order and provides an illustration of how it works in a very concrete situation. It is both idealistic, and realistic. It’s a dual argument combining inspiring values and practical efficiency. This is something we should pay close attention to when arguing for volunteering.
Titmuss’s critics, particularly early on, included economists (Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow) who couldn’t see why remuneration of blood donation would not result in more supply. However, in the years that have followed 1970 when Titmuss’s book ‘The Gift Relationship’ was originally published, research has generally born out Titmuss’s claim that giving is the most efficient way.
Giving and motivation theory
Rational Choice Theory sees individuals as influenced by preferences (self-interest) and constraints (e.g. money and time). Economists find preferences to be rather elusive and hard to measure independent of the behaviour in question, as a result they measure constraints to determine behaviour. Bruno Frey’s work on motivation draws out this issue of efficiency of giving. For Frey we should distinguish between two different types of motivation. There’s extrinsic motivation (e.g. a monetary incentive for giving blood), and intrinsic motivation (e.g. giver feels happier after giving blood). [Dan Pink's TED talk is a great summary of these concepts and why they matter]
Frey shows how extrinsic motivation tends to crowd out people’s intrinsic motivation. In other words, in the case of giving blood, when financial incentives are offered, some are encouraged to give blood, however others who would have given freely are put off. If the level of financial incentive is increased, there is a net increase in donors. However, there’s also an increase in undesirable donors who are no longer open about their likely risk level, for fear of not being paid.
Michael Sandel’s point, that I touched on at the start of the post, is that paying for blood where it was previously given, changes the way a society perceives the value of giving. In other words, once a payment system for blood is introduced, it can be difficult to shift a non-remunerated system. Lithuania is a fascinating case in point which is trying to move from a remunerated system of blood donation established under the previous communist government, to a non-remunerated system to meet European Union requirements. Sandel also highlights the case in the US where kids have financial incentives to read books, and the experiment in Israel where the introduction of fines for late collection of kids at a nursery led to an increase in late pick ups.
Giving is socially constructed
It is crucial to understand that blood donation is a gift economy that takes place in an industrialised context (driven by technical efficiency). As a result, giving is in many ways socially constructed. It is instructive to look at Lorentzen and Paterson’s 1992 comparative study of France, a country where kidney donation between living persons is extremely rare, and Norway, where such donation often occurs. Philippe Steiner:
Whereas in France only 41% of waiting-list patients received a transplant in 1990, there was no scarcity of organs in Norway. As the authors explain, the two countries had very different organ-collecting policies. In Norway collection is highly dependent on kidney donation from patients’ relatives and friends (49% of recipients in 1990), whereas at 2.7%, France has the lowest rate for such donation of all European countries.
It turns out that there are clear ways in which this difference between the two countries is socially constructed. It begins with the fact that French doctors are generally opposed to donation by living donors, which they see as voluntarily harming a healthy individual. This reluctance in France, means the medical establishment hardly encourages kidney donation. In addition, France is well equipped with dialysis machines, meaning there is a tendency to want to make use of existing supply.
Industrialisation of giving
The system for making use of gifted blood has changed dramatically as a result of industrialisation of the process. Steiner explains:
At a time when the problem of donor selection had become particularly acute [1960's], with the introduction of major new techniques for treating collected blood, included pooling (mixing the blood of several thousand donors) and breaking down blood into various stable components (albumin, fibrinogen, immunoglobin, anti-hemophiliac VIII factors), products which themselves gradually came to be categorized as medicines. Indeed, we must distinguish between blood itself, a product which cannot be kept more than a month, and the products yielded by industrial treatment of blood or plasma, which may be kept a year or more. This difference is essential. It was through technological progress and a supply of better-adapted treatments that the industrial world made its entrance into the system of blood collection and diffusion.
This industrialisation driven by technological change has meant that gift-based and market-based systems have become intertwined at the industrial level. Steiner explains:
European countries, most of whose blood collection systems are organized around the unpaid voluntary action principle (the most notable exception is Germany), are in a position to meet domestic need for blood, but not for products like plasma and stable derivatives such as Factor VIII, distributed to hemophiliacs. These products are therefore imported from countries where donors are paid for giving blood. This means that countries with unpaid action systems cannot really see this as a quality that makes them/ more virtuous than countries with paid systems. Importing plasma from the United States amounts to using blood collected in exchange for payment; meanwhile, the importing countries do not want to be responsible for deciding to set up their own paying system (Setbon, 1993, p. 124; Hermitte, 1996, pp. 177-185; Schwartz, 1999, p. 47)
According to research in Lithuania, Sweden and the US, there seems to be demographic differences between donors who are remunerated and those who are for giving blood. Typically blood donors who are remunerated are majority male, while those blood donors who are non-remunerated are majority female. The non-remunerated tend also to be educated to a higher level and have a higher income.
For those donors who are remunerated, they tend to have a lower income and level of income is more evenly split. Here’s the data from the Lithuania study in more detail. This suggests that the likelihood that you’re able to access giving systems depends on how disadvantaged you are. A question is then- is there a trade off possible between incentives and accessibility of all demographics?
Motivations of blood donors
It’s striking just how many of the discussion points brought out by this research in Lithuania about blood donoring pulls out many of the issues that are typical to volunteering the world over. For example, the importance of being asked to take part, the driver of having blood donoring affect you personally in some way, and the fact that giving blood is actually almost a side effect of a more practical driver (e.g. test a health condition).
According to some researchers [see notes below 1,2,3], the main motivating factor that mobilizes prospective donors is their awareness of the patients’ need for blood in combination to one’s presumption that one day they may also find themselves in need of blood transfusion. Other research findings support the claim that altruism and awareness of the need are not strong enough motivation factors [see notes 4,5]. The present research shows that people donate their blood if they receive a call to do it, are informed of somebody’s vital need for their blood, wish to test their health condition or get some earnings.
Retention of blood donors
It would be interesting to look for more research about what makes people repeat donors and what accounts for the high rate of one off donors. Anecdotally there are changes in how people are donoring blood in the UK, i.e. there are less, regular donors. This seems to chime with the issue generally that patterns of volunteering are changing, becoming more episodic. The research in Lithuania found:
Not all persons who have once donated their blood become repeat donors. Findings of earlier research show that 40 per cent do it as a one-time act [See note 3]. In the Lithuanian case, the greater part of non-remunerated donors comprises persons who did it for the first time. Thus it is really crucial to focus donor recruitment strategies on the transformation of the first timers’ into the repeat ones as well as the retention of the latter [See note 6].
Retention of donors is also largely dependent on donor satisfaction with blood collection services [See note 7]. So it is vital to help them feel at home at blood centres. Another crucial aspect is making donors feel that their blood donations are useful for the community and appreciated by it.
Communication of volunteering and donation
Finally, there’s surely opportunities for working together to continue to develop and build a positive image of volunteering that includes blood donation along with many other kinds of giving and volunteering today. The research in Lithuania noted:
To promote non-remunerated donation, it is essential to build a positive image of the donor in the public and further develop donation as an act of charity. Thus good public relations is a crucial promotional means in blood donor recruitment and retention management. Community participation and involvement in blood donation could also be encouraged by paying public honour to the most active donors and charity events. Another possibility would be to employ mass media in providing information on blood donation and its positive effect on human health as well as the national supplies of blood and its components at national blood collecting centres.
1. Olaiya MA, Alakija A, Ajala A, Olatunji O. Knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and motivations towards blood donations among blood donors in Lagos, Nigeria. Transfusion Medicine. 2004;14:13-17. doi: 10.1111/j.0958-7578.2004.00474.x.
2. Androulaki Z, Merkouris A, Tsouras C, Androulakis M. Knowledge and Attitude Towards Voluntary Blood Donation Among A Sample of Students In TEI Of Crete, Greece. Nurs Web J. 2005. p. 23.
4. Nilsson BS. The blood – donation experience: perceived physical, psychological and social impact of blood donation on the donor. Vox Sanguinis. 2003;84:120-128. doi: 10.1046/j.1423-0410.2003.00271.x.
5. Fernandez Montoya A, de Dios Luna del Castillo J, Lopez Berrio A, Rodriguez Fernandez A. Attitudes, beliefs, and motivations in blood donors and non-donors. Sandre . 1996;41:427-40.
7. Politis C. Blood donation systems as an integral part of the health system. Arch Hellen Med. 2000;17:354-357.
James Neuberger, Chris Rudge and AC Grayling discuss the reasons why we give and how we can influence altruistic behaviour.
I was listening to this discussion at the RSA ‘Living by giving: Donation and the benefits of altruism’. There’s a point in the discussion where a mother of child saved by donated organs explains how important it was for her to know she had the consent of the giver – before her child received those organs. It’s an important point that explains the difference between giving with and without consent, that’s discussed in the debate about whether we should opt in or opt out of organ donation.
Volunteering is a political act. I don’t mean in the narrow sense, such as volunteering in campaigning or supporting a political party. Volunteering is political in the sense that it has a profound impact on our political economy (our political and economic system).
This phenomenon translates into hot topics in the volunteering world, such as: job substitution of paid staff for volunteers [giving vs exchanging], volunteering in the private sector [giving within a commodity based system], the state’s role in promoting volunteering [state deciding between gifts and commodities] or how volunteering’s contribution to the UK’s economic activity is measured [converting value of gifts into the value of commodities]. These, and other issues, I claim are controversial because volunteering is, by it’s very nature, a political act in that volunteering as an act of giving forms part of a particular kind of political economy: the gift economy. This point is too often overlooked, perhaps because it is too important for volunteering as an issue to be regarded as politically neutral.
For many, the web has led to the development of a new political economy. In fact, this is a broader debate way beyond this post. But it’s pretty clear our society’s factors of production (resources employed to produce goods and services) have been transformed with the web, and there is no shortage of discussion on this. What I want to look at here is how, as the web changes the way we think about political economy, it’s changing the way we think about giving. This has profound implications for volunteering, as a giving activity.
As always, I’m interested in how the general debates about the nature of volunteering fit into this bigger picture, as we can learn a lot from these discussions about the web and its effect on political economy. For this post, I wanted to come at the discussion slightly left field to provide a contrast to the usual mainstream discussion. To kick off, I’ve been looking at contributions to this critique of the web-influenced political economy from a neo-Marxist perspective.
This is to contrast many of the more mainstream (many US based) writers about the new economy driven by the web who tend to come at the subject from either a neo-liberal perspective, such as Kevin Kelly, Chris Anderson or Don Tapscott, or with a more social democratic flavour such as Lawrence Lessig or Yochai Benkler. All of whom we’ve mentioned on this blog already.
To put it very simplistically, the ‘right’ generally views the gift economy of the web as providing more opportunities than threats to the current capitalist system. Giving, as an economic model enabled by the web, is something that capitalism can incorporate and subsume. The perspective from the ‘left’ is generally the opposite: the gift economy made possible through the web, ultimately challenges the very nature of capitalism.
As a result, I think, how volunteering engages with the new web-enabled political economy is incredibly politically significant.
For Fuchs, there is an antagonism between cooperation and competition (PDF) within ‘transnational informational capitalism’. This tension comes about because within the structure of contemporary capitalism, there’s a germ of a new form of society. Fuchs explains this in the following way:
The productive forces of contemporary capitalism are organized around informational networks. It is due to three specific characteristics of such structures that they come in contradiction with the capitalist relations of production and are a germ form (Keimform) of a society that is based on fully cooperative and socialized means of production:
Information as a strategic economic resource is globally produced and diffused by networks. It is a good that is hard to control in single places or by single owners.
Information is intangible. It can easily be copied, which results in multiple ownerships and hence undermines individual private property.
The essence of networks is that they strive for establishing connections. Networks are in essence a negation of individual ownership and the atomism of capitalism.
These three characteristics are also affecting large not for profit organisations that have been behind a lot of the organised volunteering opportunities. Information is an economic resource that provides many big not for profit organisations with their competitive advantage, and as a result, many have not been as forthcoming in looking to see how such information could be used to encourage collaboration.
Clearly, this is a theory that focuses on the role of information and knowledge producers, and how the means of production are structured as networks. What’s particularly interesting in our discussion on volunteering is how, as Fuchs points out, this new political economy centres on a new relationship between gifts and commodities:
Although the principle of the gift points towards a postcapitalist society, gifts are today subsumed under capitalism and used for generating profit in the Internet economy. The Internet gift economy has a double character: it supports and at the same time undermines informational capitalism. Applications such as file-sharing software question the logic of commodities, whereas platforms such as Google and MySpace are characteristic of the capitalist gift economy.
The volunteering sector is being hugely changed by this idea that actually the role of giving that’s most effective, is that which also happens to meet the corporate interest. On a simple level, that might be corporates sponsoring voluntary sector activity which may influence the nature of the giving activities to a greater or lesser extent. Even accepting free services that are supported by online adverts can lead to altering the sense of the giving or the way the giving activities are perceived. The broader question is: to what degree are the gift and exchange cultures compatible?
Open source advocate Eric Steven Raymond in his article, ‘Homesteading the Noosphere‘ explores how hackers come together and develop gift cultures. Raymond represents this libertarian spirit found in many open source communities coming together through the web. He has an interesting take on understanding why this online gift economy has come about in the first place:
Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy.
Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.
Thus the Kwakiutl chieftain’s potlach party. Thus the multi-millionaire’s elaborate and usually public acts of philanthropy. And thus the hacker’s long hours of effort to produce high-quality open-source code.
I think Raymond is on to something with the connection between abundance and gift economies. But he misunderstands the role of material abundance. The wealthy may give, but it ignores the fact that often their giving is limited because their wealth is wedded to an exchange system. Likewise, it doesn’t explain how many of the most deeply embedded gift economies exist in communities that are materially poor. It’s crucial to understand giving as a response to having access to an abundant means of production, not an abundant material product.
A volunteering equivalent of this idea, is that of Edgar Cahn’s exploration of the ‘core economy’ developed in Time Banking. The concept of the ‘core economy’ was originally coined by Neva Goodwin. It’s this idea that the “ability to care for others is something that all of us have, and this means that in terms of money, it is worth very little”. One reason volunteering develops where and how it does is because it builds on our abundant ability to support and help each other.
It is really important to make the distinction between the abundant existence of a product, and the abundant access to the means of production of the product. There is no guarantee that abundant products will be shared, if there is no accompanying abundant access to the means to make that product. In fact, more often than not, abundant products wind up being scarce when subject to the forces of command economies or exchange economies.
I can think of photographers deliberately destroying copies of their works and running limited edition print runs to maximise the financial value of their work. Conversely, the fact that so many can act to help positive change or volunteer, should not devalue the vital contribution of those who do. For example, often volunteering experience is undervalued by employers when compared to equivalent experience that has been financially remunerated. I guess a Marxist take on this is that employers generally take their lead from exchange value, rather than just use value.
This idea of linking social status to what you give away, than to what you control, is important in distinguishing between exchange relationships and giving relationships. Fuchs distinguishes non-profit gifts and commodities, in relation to exchange and use value. Gifts just have use value and no exchange value.
Volunteering and the voluntary sector have arguably been massively affected by this commodification of goods and services that have traditionally been given as gifts. In a very real sense, in volunteering, we are working out many of the issues that arise where gifts and commodities meet. For example, charging service users for services that are based on giving activities, agreeing a basis for local authority contracts with the voluntary sector, running commercial activities alongside charitable activities, and so on and so on.
Historical context: the case of the Situationists
However, it is really impossible to make much progress understanding the meaning of this debate about gifts and commodities without some historical context. Richard Barbrook has written about the so-called Situationists who believed that everyone could control their own destinies. Wikipedia has this choice summing up of the Situationists connection here: “Drawing from Marx, which argued that under a capitalist society the wealth is degraded to an immense accumulation of commodities, Guy Debord argues that in advanced capitalism, life is reduced to an immense accumulation of spectacles, a triumph of mere appearance where “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation”.
The spectacle, which according to Debord is the core feature of the advanced capitalist societies, has its “most glaring superficial manifestation in the advertising-mass media-marketing complex”. Barbrook writes:
These New Left activists wanted to create opportunities for everyone to express their own hopes, dreams and desires. The Hegelian ‘grand narrative’ would culminate in the supersession of all mediations separating people from each other. Yet, despite their Hegelian modernism, the Situationists believed that the utopian future had been prefigured in the tribal past. For example, tribes in Polynesia organised themselves around the potlatch: the circulation of gifts. Within these societies, this gift economy bound people together into tribes and encouraged cooperation between different tribes. In contrast with the atomisation and alienation of bourgeois society, potlatches required intimate contacts and emotional authenticity. According to the Situationists, the tribal gift economy demonstrated that individuals could successfully live together without needing either the state or the market. After the New Left revolution, people would recreate this idyllic condition: anarcho-communism.
However, the Situationists could not escape from the elitist tradition of the avant-garde. Despite their invocation of Hegel and Marx, the Situationists remained haunted by Nietzsche and Lenin. As in earlier generations, the rhetoric of mass participation simultaneously justified the leadership of the intellectual elite. Anarcho-communism was therefore transformed into the ‘mark of distinction’ for the New Left vanguard. As a consequence, the giving of gifts was seen as the absolute antithesis of market competition. There could be no compromise between tribal authenticity and bourgeois alienation. After the social revolution, the potlatch would completely supplant the commodity.
For the Situationists in the 1960s and 1970s, the gift economy represented the antithesis of capitalism. The two were absolute opposites. But now, particularly with the development of gift economies on the web, it’s clear that there’s a complex relationship between the two. For Barbrook the giving evolving through the web is a more authentic approach to anarcho-communism.
Barbrook argues that the web has grown out of a gift economy of a very different sort. Academics have used and built the internet to share their work and build their reputations. The web has spread out of this function for academics, but also in the very practical way it has depended on developers to have given their time and skills to the process. That the web developed through giving is a contingent happening. It did not have be like this.
In France, the nationalised telephone monopoly has accustomed people to paying for the on-line services provided by Minitel. In contrast, the Net remains predominantly a gift economy even though the system has expanded far beyond the university. From scientists through hobbyists to the general public, the charmed circle of users was slowly built up through the adhesion of many localised networks to an agreed set of protocols.
Crucially, the common standards of the Net include social conventions as well as technical rules. The giving and receiving of information without payment is almost never questioned. Although the circulation of gifts doesn’t necessarily create emotional obligations between individuals, people are still willing to donate their information to everyone else on the Net.
Even selfish reasons encourage people to become anarcho-communists within cyberspace. By adding their own presence, every user contributes to the collective knowledge accessible to those already on-line. In return, each individual has potential access to all the information made available by others within the Net.
The web has been built on the new economy where information is at the centre. For Barbrook giving (as developed on the web) is a natural consequence of its structure (of localised networks and agreed protocols). It’s a semi-conscious kind of giving that doesn’t necessarily create emotional obligations or question why there isn’t a charge attached to information there. The web is a different kind of space. In fact this idea of emotional obligations playing a lesser role might explain why it has been challenging to transfer and evolve many volunteering activities online.
It’s also important to remember that the web economy is built on the value of knowledge. In many cases, it is harder to abstract the human interconnection that’s at the core of much volunteering. Coming back to Christian Fuchs:
“Knowledge is in global network capitalism a strategic economic resource; property struggles in the information society take on the form of conflicts over the public or proprietary character of knowledge. Its production is inherently social, cooperative and historical. Knowledge is in many cases produced by individuals in a joint effort. New knowledge incorporates earlier forms of knowledge; it is coined by the whole history of knowledge. Hence, it is in essence a public good and it is difficult to argue that there is an individual authorship that grounds individual property rights and copyrights. Global economic networks and cyberspace today function as channels of production and diffusion of knowledge commodities; the accumulation of profit by selling knowledge is legally guaranteed by intellectual property rights.”
“The contradiction that lies at the heart of the political economy of intellectual property is between the low to non-existent marginal cost of reproduction of knowledge and its treatment as scarce property”
This contradiction is not just about the low cost of reproduction of knowledge, it’s also because of the increasingly easy access to the means of production of knowledge and it’s treatment as scarce. In fact we’re essentially fettering our knowledge to make it scarce. Back to Fuchs:
“Networks are forms of development as well as fetters of capitalism; paraphrasing Marx one can say that informational capitalism is a point where the means of production have become ˜incompatible with their capitalist integument’ (Das Kapital 1, Marx, 1867: 791).”
In other words, for Fuchs, there’s a fundamental contradiction at the heart of informational capitalism: it needs to both commodify knowledge and gift knowledge. It needs appropriate knowledge to generate exchange value, but at the same time rip down the fetters of knowledge, such as intellectual property rights to maximise the productive capacity of social labour. In much of the voluntary sector, the fetters of knowledge are not normally intellectual property rights, but may perhaps be more akin to bureaucratic method, financial resource and the limitations of partnership working across big not for profits organisations.
Soderberg presents the example that “the free software community provides the first and most complete example of how a collective learning process, communication, or the general intellect, becomes a producing entity in itself. Code is essentially a language, and thus offers a pure model of the network externalities assumption. That assumption, stating that comparability rules over excludability, is a consequence of non-rival goods”.
These thoughts need breaking down.
Network externality is really the idea that a product’s value to a consumer changes as the number of users of the product changes. Take Wikipedia as an example of networked knowledge. It’s clear that it’s value as knowledge increases as more people use it, because more readers generally translate into more contributors to the knowledge, just as Barbrook pointed out in the passage above.
The idea of the ‘general intellect’ is far more problematic, but it links this thinking about knowledge and networks, to Marx’s own thought about the relation between capital and labour. Nate Hawthorne has done a really great summing up of this on his blog, “What in the hell…“:
General intellect is a term used by Marx in the Grundrisse in a section referred to as The Fragment On Machines. In this section Marx speculates on the role of intellect, specifically scientific knowledge and technical expertise, in present and possible future versions of capitalist production. For Marx general intellect essentially resides in fixed capital, in machines and objective factors of production. Thinkers of the late 20th century onward have expanded the concept to refer to the role of intellect within variable capital, that is, skills and knowledges within the bodies and brains of workers and how these capacities relate to capitalist production and radical possibilities. .
Soderberg’s point is that immaterial social labour (e.g. production of knowledge through networks) is making inroads within capitalist production itself, “which needs to utilize the cooperative and communicative capacity of the workforce in order to stay competitive”. In fact, I think there’s a case for saying that immaterial social labour is something that the voluntary sector has been involved in for many years- and has a great deal of experience in.
Coming back to Fuchs it clear that there is a tension that goes way back about knowledge as a gift and knowledge as a commodity: “In society, information can only be produced jointly in cooperative processes, not individually. Hence, Marx argued that knowledge ˜depends partly on the cooperation of the living, and partly on the utilisation of the labours of those who have gone before’ (Marx, 1894: 114). Whenever new information emerges, it incorporates the whole societal history of information: that is, information has a historical character. Hence, information in essence is a public good, freely available to all. But in global informational capitalism, information has become an important productive force that favours new forms of capital accumulation. Information is today not treated as a public good, rather as a commodity. There is an antagonism between information as a public good and as a commodity. ”
Web’s changing giving
There is a lot still to learn and understand about how the web is changing our political economy. For this reason it’s important to still be able to think of the web as something so new and different, that it may just mean that by volunteering we’re engaged in potentially revolutionising our political economy. In this sense volunteering is a political act. For thinkers on the left, just by taking up the challenge and volunteering, volunteers are demonstrating that there is a different way- and perhaps even hinting at a post-capitalist system built on cooperation, rather than competition, and on gifts, rather than commodities. The associated danger on the other hand, is that this volunteering experience becomes corrupted and ultimately subservient to the drive to commodify our social relations.
This perspective also suggests that those involved in volunteering need to begin this work of thinking through the implications of how the web is changing our conception of political economy, and how it is changing the way we give. And at least on this point, I think there’s agreement from both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’.
We need to think this through anew. Volunteering is entering new territory.
As John Perry Barlow states in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace: “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter, There is no matter here. Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.”
As Watts so neatly demonstrates; when we focus on education as a means to something else, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s a profound tension between needing a purpose to provide us with meaning, and having the means to achieve our chosen purpose. Or to paraphrase Watts, life is like music- we’re supposed to dance and sing as the music plays, not wait for the final movement of the symphony.
I’m interested in how this debate in education can help us to think more about accepting volunteering programmes as a means to an end (specifically helping to achieve the organisation’s mission), and balancing it with the approach that enjoys volunteering for what it is for the volunteer- not just what it facilitates for the organisation.
Deeper social values play a role joining us as individuals with us as members of a society. Getting back to Aristotle:
There remains to be discussed the question whether the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the state, or different. Here again there can be no doubt — no one denies that they are the same. [Aristotle, Politics (Book 7)]
In other words, there’s a fundamental link between the happiness or wellbeing of the individual and that of the polis or state. Paul Gibbs in his article ‘Isn’t higher education employability?‘ (PDF) provides a clear example of developing what the implications of Aristotle’s thoughts mean for the debate on education today. Gibbs argues that:
Employability is not the end of education, but a competency of the skilled authentic social agent. I see no difficulty in employability skills being incorporated within a more general set of aims for higher education, but I am concerned that we might instrumentalise our education system to such an extent that employability becomes the prime purpose of higher education, satisfying only often ill-informed and morally base notions of what is an adequate education by reference to a measurable return on financial investment.
Paul Gibbs takes us through why the purpose of education is more than just boosting the employability of students. In fact, he’s got reservations about employability as a concept: it’s (i) a relative term weighted towards employers, (ii) generally poorly understood, and (iii) presupposes a single ideology that takes its justification from the economic. Gibbs suggests a more balanced approach to understanding education as mercantile, civic and contemplative, to satisfy the moral and economic needs of the community.
Reflecting on this, volunteering has been put under similar pressures. Frequently employability is cited as a particular outcome that volunteering programmes aim to meet. Perhaps it would be as well to ponder on some of Gibbs’ reservations and how relevant they are. For example, do employers carry more weight than volunteer managers or the volunteers themselves?
Martha Nussbaum made one of the strongest defences in recent years of this kind of liberal approach to education evoked by Gibbs above, in her 1997 book ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education‘. She argues that the purpose of liberal education is to cultivate humanity. According to Nussbaum, humanity can be cultivated in three ways:
The first is the capacity for critical self-examination and critical thinking about one’s own culture and traditions.
The second is the capacity to see oneself as a human being who is bound to all humans with ties of concern.
The third is the capacity for narrative imagination – the ability to empathize with others and to put oneself in another’s place.
Clearly many volunteering roles meet these different capacities needed for cultivating humanity cited by Nussbaum and volunteering itself, comes within this conception of liberal education. Volunteering through hands on activities with others with different cultures and traditions enables volunteers to develop their critical thinking about their own culture. Volunteering is built on achieving social impacts and meeting identified needs in society so enabling volunteers to understand how they are practically ‘bound to all humans with ties of concern’. Finally, volunteering brings volunteers in contact with others in society they might not ordinarily meet, and in a specific context or narrative determined by the group or organisation they are volunteering with.
Often opposition to this approach to liberal education comes from vocationalism. To a certain extent, this started with the writings of philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey. In 1916 he wrote in Democracy and Education about the place of vocational aims in education:
A calling is also of necessity an organizing principle for information and ideas; for knowledge and intellectual growth… The vocation acts as both magnet to attract and as glue to hold. Such organization of knowledge is vital, because it has reference to needs; it is so expressed and readjusted in action that it never becomes stagnant. No classification, no selection and arrangement of facts, which is consciously worked out for purely abstract ends, can ever compare in solidity or effectiveness with that knit under the stress of an occupation; in comparison the former sort is formal, superficial, and cold.
Dewey spoke a lot about occupations in a broad sense, including both professional and amateur pursuits, and also other parts of life such as being a parent. Applying vocations to education, rather than constraining education in arbitrary and narrow ways, Dewey argued that it brought education to life by making it relevant for life.
In more recent times, this vocationalist argument has resurfaced in different guises. In particular in the debate over the workings of publicly-financed schools. This argument sees much of the education system as irrelevant and impractical. It does not equip students with the technical skills and experience they require in the world today. At a time of high costs and competition for resources, the case for why education needs to be efficient and practical is clearly a persuasive argument to make. But it’s a view, as Robert Sherman explains, that sees business, industry and technology as the primary forces changing society. Educating students in specific careers, risks feeding these particular forces, rather than enabling students to cope with them.
As we debate further the role of education, we discover that this debate is clearly linked to the discussion on the meaning of work itself. David Corson in the first chapter of the book ‘Education for Work‘ cites different trends affecting the family and the home, that have opened up a gap between them and the world of work.
the workplace has become separated from the home; occupational roles have become distinct from kin based roles and relationships; labor market values have penetrated into family decisions about the future of offspring; parents have come to see that children’s job prospects are far removed from any form of socialization that they can possibly receive within the family and parents are not usually placed to make the social connections necessary to put their children in touch with work that might suit and satisfy their wants and talents.
These are trends that have profound implications for education, but they also would seem to have implications for volunteering. For example, this argument could be used to suggest that these forces separating work from home and the family, has been the basis for the growth in formal volunteering over the same period. For example, as people have learnt to rely less on family and home to make social connections, so people have become more used or habituated to relying on, both as a provider of opportunities to do social good and as a provider of services from the voluntary sector. Giving activities have moved from the home and the family, to more formal settings such as established not-for-profit organisations.
Corson suggests a distinction between ‘occupational work’ and ‘recreational work’. Work is a means to an end, while recreation is an end in itself. Work is a “purposeful activity performed by people in producing goods or services of value, whether for remuneration or not” (Dimensions of Work- Nels Anderson- 1964).
Work becomes a means to an end when it is performed in an occupational role as the work activity of a job. Occupational work is that variety of work that is instrumental to some other goal (usually the remuneration of workers or the survival of themselves and their societies). Recreation work is ‘voluntary in every respect, for it is of the nature of recreation that it ceases to exist for people compelled to pursue it’.
This simple distinction between two types of work from the 1960′s explains one fundamental tension in understanding volunteering today. That is volunteering fits into both camps: at times it’s closer to occupational work and becomes a means to an end, and at other times it’s closer to recreational work and is an end in itself.
This very brief tour then of the debate on the role of education, is never far removed from the parallel debates on the role of volunteering and on the role of work.
A couple of weeks ago now I was at the Volunteer Management Conference organised by Volunteering England at Warwick University. I remember Mark Goldring, Chief Executive of Mencap, explaining how it was important to ensure that volunteers and staff understood how they together contribute to furthering the organisation’s mission. This is a key insight into how a clearly articulated mission communicated and owned across an organisation can be a point of unity between paid staff and volunteers. But the message here is also that this route to unity clearly puts volunteering in the ‘occupational work’ camp.
One question this and the general debate of education poses volunteering is: whether unity is possible between paid staff and volunteers, whether professionalisation of those responsible for an organisation’s volunteer management is possible, if we insist that volunteering is also recreational, not just occupational, and that volunteering is not just a means to an end, but also an end in itself?
The group came together through Twitter and the local Devon Social Media Cafe, a monthly meet up for social media users in Devon. The group took up the challenge of organising a local Twestival and worked on its preparation in a matter of six weeks or so. Here’s an explanation of what Twestival is according to Twestival.com:
Twestival„¢ (or Twitter Festival) uses social media for social good. All of the local events are organized 100% by volunteers and 100% of all ticket sales and donations go direct to projects.
By the end of the odyssey, the group in Plymouth had raised almost £6,000 for Concern- making the Plymouth Twestival the third largest in terms of amount raised of all the local Twestivals around the UK in spring 2010. An amazing result, all the more so considering it was the first time the group had organised the Twitter associated fundraising extravaganza. Over 100 people attended the event at Plymouth Argyle.
an auction hosted by local celebrity auctioneer Graham Barton (from BBC series ‘Homes Under the Hammer’)
Organising any Twestival is an incredible challenge. Twestivals are driven by volunteers and are typically organised in short periods of time, powered by the volunteers’ own resources and resourcefulness. What follows is an attempt to identify the reasons for the spectacular success of the group in Plymouth and this new model of volunteer engagement that’s being thrashed out by local groups running Twestival events all over the world.
Recruitment (or how the group’s engagement began)
In terms of volunteers, there were around 10-12 people who helped out in various ways, with a core group of 5-6 people. People joined the group, not so much because they’d seen the volunteering opportunity advertised, but because they already had a contact with someone in the group or because they were drawn in by the Twestival event itself.
The initial contact between the group members themselves and or with the Twestival event in Plymouth were almost all made informally through online social media, in particular Twitter. This meant that the group came from a very diverse range of backgrounds, united by social media and by the links with the local area.
In the beginning of the planning process, it was suggested that members of the group adopt specific roles. However, in the end, people rejected this in favour of a looser, more informal approach with each person doing what they could. Public facing roles (e.g. press, sponsorship, general enquiries, etc.) were assigned to different members of the group for pragmatic communications reasons, so the general public knew who to approach with a specific enquiry. However, behind the scenes, most members of the group ended up helping across a range of different ‘roles’ or tasks on an as needed basis. Although each member brought their own skills and experience, volunteers were not recruited on the basis of formal qualifications.
Interestingly, the vast majority had not volunteered formally before and in fact many didn’t consider their involvement with Twestival as volunteering, rather they were simply helping out with the task at hand. As a result, searching for a volunteering opportunity would have been unlikely to have been a point of entry for them had they been advertised on a volunteering opportunity website like Do-it or Volunteer Match.
Volunteers could come through the Plymouth Twestival page. But many came through simple conversation on Twitter simply tweeting or DM’ing a member of the group or the main Plymouth Twestival twitter account.
As the date of the event got closer, some formal volunteer recruitment to get help with stewarding the event was attempted through local student volunteering services. This recruitment approach didn’t result in any volunteers. In the end, this role was filled by different members of the group who helped out with stewarding on an ad hoc basis on the day itself.
Ripping up the rule book
In many ways, it was a case of ripping up the rule book on traditional volunteer management and starting again in a very different way. Chris enjoyed how this allowed the group to focus on the needs at hand, liberated from the burden of worrying about getting the policies in place beforehand. This more informal approach was possible for a number of reasons.
The group came together for a very specific purpose and was clearly time limited. The date of Twestival is fixed across the world. The group was small which enabled management to be very lightweight and informal. There was strong feeling of serendipity in the way the challenge was approached, rather than planning every last detail.
This should not in any way downplay the enormous amount of work and organisation that took place in the preparation of the event. However, it’s important to note that this work was carried out because members of the group proactively took responsibility for different tasks, rather than relied on tasks to be assigned to them.
There was also a balance of power in the sense in which all group could shape what happened and have an impact on the development of the event.
The gift relationships that bonded the group were never lost from sight, which meant people had flexibility to carry out the tasks when they could based on their actual capacity. The only pressure was the pressure people put on themselves. The group’s expectations were based on the assumption that each was delivering the best they could, not against unrealistic or imposed targets.
It was people getting together in their spare time and as a result one important ingredient in the mix was the clear sense of fun in which the group took on the challenge. This playfulness in spirit was driven by the group members themselves, but also through a sense of good-natured rivalry with events being organised in different parts of the South-West such as Bristol and Exeter .
People were motivated by the fact they were clearly autonomous, and had a lot of freedom to do what they wanted. There was no ambition from the central organisers of Twestival to control or dictate how this group in Plymouth (or any other) should approach the challenge of fundraising for the internationally nominated charity Concern. There was also no centralised centrepiece, as is often the case with national fundraisers driven by mass media. Absence of any national centrepiece provides the Plymouth group with the space to create it’s own distinctive style which perhaps explains why it is such a powerful motivator of volunteer engagement.
It’s also important not to forget how the very social aspect of the volunteering, not only drew people to get involved, but also meant that the group stayed together up to the event itself. In fact, the group continues to meet together socially now after Twestival, which gives you an idea of the strength of the relationships and level of companionship within the group. It’s a clear example of how links built online can contribute to building social capital in local communities.
One reason why people’s commitment to the group grew was because it’s designed in a way that means volunteers’ personal interests are compatible with a broader collective interest. Twestival comes with a clear purpose or target for social impact: fundraise for a good cause. But at the same time, it leaves plenty of space for volunteers to express their personal freedom through their volunteering.
As a result volunteers were free to play out their involvement to fundraise for the cause at hand, in a way that often brought the happy side effect of meeting some of their own more personal interests. For example, through the volunteering activity many group members discovered contacts with others in the local area that could well prove useful in their wider lives as members of the community. Another example was that through their support and association with the event, volunteers could get a certain amount of valuable publicity and help build their own professional reputation.
This reason this was possible was again due in part to the informality of the event’s organisation. Each member of the group’s involvement was based not formally representing another organisation, rather people were involved more in a personal capacity. In addition, because the event is time limited and the beneficiary alternates (the next Twestival will be fundraising for a local charity) it reduces concerns about a conflict of interest arising between the fundraising purpose of the group and individual personal interests.
Limitations of informality
One specific limitation for the group in its informality was in cash handling. This limitation was overcome in the first instance because there were very few requirements to handle cash. Moreover, much of the support was in gifts in kind, many costs such as expenses were covered by each individual, and online payment methods avoids the need to a large extent for cash handling.
The group used the following social media tools:
Twitter account for Plymouth Twestival
Facebook page – public facing
Huddle group for password protected discussion
Good old fashioned email
Interestingly, Twestival clearly taps into the three key motivations cited by Daniel Pink in his latest book Drive: being autonomous, achieving mastery and having purpose. The example of the group in Plymouth clearly demonstrates the importance of having a sense of purpose and feeling independent were key factors in terms of motivating the members volunteering for the event. If the group continues to take on and organise further events, mastery and the challenge of getting better and improvements could well kick in too.
Here’s a summary of some of the learnings from this Twestival for involving volunteers:
Time limited event – time limits commitment and provides impetus to organisation
Clear collective purpose – fundraise for a good cause
Twestival organised locally, not nationally – centralisation is at a minimum
Social impact centrally defined, personal freedom undefined (how you volunteer is down to you
Twestival provides space for local autonomy, scope to mastery as a group and a clear central purpose (in this case fundraise for Concern)
Engagement driven by desire to be part of a community, rather than volunteering in a particular role
Group was largely self-organised, rather than centralised by any particular member of the group
Engagement sustained by bonds through social media, being from the same local area and volunteering in a personal capacity, rather representing an adopted organisation