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):
Or the Helping Out survey (2006-7) – it’s captured from this research bulletin ”Regular and occasional volunteers: How and why they help out” (PDF) published by the Institute of Volunteering Research:
Or the Do-it Satisfaction 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.
When you talk about values and giving, sooner or later the word ‘altruism’ pops up. Auguste Comte was one of the first to develop a system based on altruism called Positivism. For Comte, altruism is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary, at the sacrifice of self interest. For Comte, we live for others. This is the definitive formula of morality (CatÃ©chisme positiviste -1852).
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.
This touches on the enormous debate about the role of intrinsic and extrinsic factors in motivation theory. Edward Deci’s theory of self-determination is a really interesting example, with many potential parallels with volunteering. Deci, with co-authors Koestner and Ryan, have looked for instance at the role of intrinsic and extrinsic factors in motivating students and pupils in educational settings.
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.
Helping others, helping ourselves: Psychologists are studying why people volunteer, and how organizations can hold on to volunteers in the long term.
Volunteer Function Inventory Scale- Clary et al: The Functional Approach to Volunteers’ Motivations (PDF)
Correlates of Satisfaction in Older Volunteers: A Motivational Perspective – THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF VOLUNTEER ADMINISTRATION – Marcia A. Finkelstein (PDF)
Motivation and volunteer participation in the «Athens 2004» Olympic Games (PDF)
Understanding Volunteers’ Motivations – Katerina Papadakis (PDF)
Empathy, External Rewards and the Motivation Crowding Effect: Impact on Volunteers - Sharmi Surianarain (PDF)
Giving Time, Money, and Blood: Similarities and Differences – Lichang Lee; Jane Allyn Piliavin; Vaughn R. A. Call – Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 3. (Sep., 1999), pp. 276-290. (PDF)