Thursday, May 19, 2011

What determines who volunteers?

This post stems from a discussion I had with Shona a couple of days ago. I had to admit that although I strongly support volunteering I don’t know much about it, or about the characteristics of people who volunteer versus those who free ride on the efforts of others.

Shona agreed to write this guest post about her experience in the hope that it might lead to further discussion of this important issue. Shona writes:

I’ve been involved in a volunteer role at my local playgroup for two and a half years now and over that time I have taken an interest in the types of people that volunteer compared to those that don’t.

The whole point of a community playgroup is that everyone pitches in and helps, thus keeping operating costs to a minimum whilst providing maximum benefit to the kids. There are parents and carers that take on more formal roles, key holders, treasurer, secretary and co-ordinator. But this in theory should simply provide other parents and carers a framework in which to enjoy playgroup. Simple game theory in practice – everyone contributes a small thing for everyone’s greater gain.

Every time someone vacates one of these formal roles, it is my job as co-ordinator, to fill them. I watch people, I see who comes regularly, I look at who pitches in. I also notice those that turn up late, leave early, and make sure they are no-where to be seen when help is required (we’re not talking anything major here, just cutting up fruit for morning tea, putting toys away, etc).

My approach is to narrow down suitable candidates; it is futile asking the group as a whole – no-one ever comes forward, in fact, if we were in a school yard, you would actually see a line of individuals take a huge theatrical step backwards. I approach people individually, quietly, and ask them if they would take on a small role. I think I have about a 30% success rate. The interesting thing is the dynamics of the group that says yes and the dynamics of the group that says no.

The people who I think will say yes can be described as follows. They have a child of an age where they are not clingy or over-dependent on their carer. They attend regularly, either weekly or more than once a week and know many of the other attendees. They have also been attending for more than 6 months and therefore know how the playgroup works. They attend both for their kids benefit, and their own – they have made friends and appreciate the adult interaction. They generally have good communication skills and have contributed more than their share during their visits.

Amazingly, after they say no (on the grounds that they don’t attend regularly), they stop attending as regularly as if to prove they can’t commit to something.

The people who do say yes surprise me every time. They often have two kids, the youngest usually new-born or very young. They are often new members, but do attend regularly, usually more than once a week. They don’t necessarily know how playgroup works but want to learn. I feel guilty accepting their gracious help – but I guess I am one of those people too.

In writing this, I realise it is quite clear cut. Those that have attended for a long period are used to free riding – why contribute? Someone else will step up. Those that are new aren’t aware of the free-riders, they want to contribute and make connections within the community. Finally, I suspect that the longer a person stays in any of the formal roles, the less likely other people are likely to step into those roles. Perhaps we should only have day-leaders (the face of those official roles) on a very short rotation.

My two years are up, it is time to move on, but any tips I can provide my successor (should I be able to find one), would be more than welcome.


Jim Belshaw said...

This one's interesting Winton and Shona and I should write either a detailed comment or a full companion post.

From my experience, volunteering is a combination of individual objectives and personality plus group and local culture.

Volunteering in Australia has dropped because of more choices, greater personal pressures and an increase in individualistic as compared to collectivist ethos.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim
Please write a companion post and/or further comments here. Your comment raises several questions in my mind. Is volunteering continuing to fall in Australia? If it is continuing to decline, to what extent is this attributable to increased female participation in paid employment? To what extent has there been a decline in collectivism and increase in individualism? I would be interested if you can shed light on these questions. I’ll also take them up in a later post.
As a former country kid, my own personal feeling about the last point is that you could not get a more individualistic bunch of people than the farmers in the area I lived in as a kid (Crowlands, Victoria) and yet I doubt whether there would be many communities with a stronger commitment to volunteering. Perhaps we need to define individualism. There was certainly a great deal of self-reliance and an ethos that individual success or failure depends mainly on personal efforts. (I have to admit that there was also some support for collective marketing but that seemed to be based largely on misconceptions about economics rather than any collectivist ethos.) At the same time, all social activity in the district involved volunteering and this was largely about money-raising for local community projects. The attendance rate at working bees must have been close to 100%.
You view about collectivism brings to mind vague memories of Russell Ward’s argument that Australians tend to be collectivists because of the harsh environment. Actually, now I’m not sure whether that was his argument. I will try to look it up.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. Will try to bring a post up tomorrow or Sunday.

One of the problems that we have on this topic is just of words. If you look at Crowlands, people may have been individualistic at one level, but they were collectivist at another. I would bet that they were individualistic when it came to people telling them what to do, collectivist when it came to dealing with local problems.

Because of some historical research, I have some rather wonderful stuff on lodges and New England in the 1920s that spell some of this out a little with a strong modern resonance.

Winton Bates said...

I look forward to reading your post, Jim.
Meanwhile, I looked at what Russel Ward wrote in ‘Australia’ (1967: p 59-60). As you would know, he writes about the environment and loneliness of Australian bushmen placing a high premium on mutual aid. The tendency toward greater collectivism, relative to the US frontier was also attributable to large scale pastoralism, with shearers etc perceiving that they had common interests opposed to the pastoralists. As a result of closer settlement, the situation I describe in Crowlands was much closer to the US frontier situation of individualistic farmers combining voluntarily to meet the collective needs of the community.