Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why are people reluctant to volunteer at playgroups in the eastern suburbs of Sydney?

This post - the 300th on this blog - is a guest post by Shona. This is the fourth post in a series on volunteering. Earlier contributions can be found here, here and here. Shona has provided the following additional comments:

My thoughts continue down the path of not why do people volunteer, but rather, why don’t people volunteer.

I loved your reference to Australian mateship ethic, described by Russel Ward, in your comments on my first contribution. Having recently studied arduously for my citizenship test, I too am familiar with the ideas about the harsh environment bringing people together. Perhaps our playgroup is suffering from the opposite of this. We live in the affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney – a beautiful but densely populated area, hardly a harsh environment to live. As you know more about Ward’s work perhaps you could discuss this aspect further. Has the mateship ethic been lost in the large conurbations?

The dynamics of playgroups are unique in many ways so I’m not sure the theories relevant elsewhere apply. People with young children moving into the area look up the local playgroup and head there straight away – even more so than people who have lived here for years before starting families. People moving into the area see it as the best way to make friends and connect.

Playgroups are a unique form of volunteer community groups – any action of one person has an immediate effect, one that can be benefitted from by that person immediately, but also shared by the free riders. Still, this is perhaps more tangible than other volunteering efforts such as environmental or social work, where someone’s actions don’t necessarily result in direct benefits to the individual. That to my mind is altruistic action and I commend it – if only I had more time! That is when the dynamics of volunteering that you write about are more relevant.

I’ve noticed two breeds of volunteers – obviously I am going to place myself in the more favourable of the two groups. One which selflessly carries out work with little fuss, without taking the task or themselves too seriously (I could go on but I won’t). And the other, where they take the role far too seriously and make it almost political or personal. I had a conversation with a friend at playgroup a few years ago. She had been heavily involved in the local surf club and as a result, was put off from volunteering for any other community organization. When I asked her why, she said that it became all too political. (I have some other great examples, but I don’t want to bore you or embarrass anyone concerned). It only takes one bad experience or story of another’s experience to put someone off.

Back to my original point – I still cannot understand why people don’t volunteer, whether this is for the session they attend, in whatever form, or to a more long-term role. I agree, the timescales of a bigger role may put people off. Maybe some people do such a great job, they think it is a hard job or a hard act to follow (I say that in regard to two day leaders that have just finished an eight month stint and not myself!). I’d be interested to discuss any other barriers. One friend also suggested that people won’t commit (even for a month) if they are thinking of moving out of the area. Given this is an expensive area to live, this could be the reasoning for many attendees. However, at least two of our volunteers last year were both here on a temporary basis (not knowing how long for) and both have moved back overseas.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How well can volunteering be explained by a naive economic model?

I should begin by defining what I mean by a naïve economic model. The naïve model I have in mind is a conventional neoclassical model, with a few bells and whistles added. The bells and whistles are necessary because so called ‘rational economic man’ who is the basis of conventional neoclassical economics doesn’t practice altruism. There are probably still some economists who claim that everything everyone does is for a selfish reason, but I am not one of them. While I recognize that a lot of people do a lot of noble things for their own satisfaction, I see no reason to doubt people when they claim to be motivated by altruism.

So, in terms of the naïve model I have in mind, the objective functions that individuals follow in making choices take some account of the well-being of other people (i.e. I am assuming interdependent utilities). That means that individuals might volunteer to do something even if they perceive that this involves some cost to their own well-being. The extent that they do this would depend on the net cost in terms of loss of individual well-being and the extent that their actions affect the collective benefit they seek to obtain by volunteering. The main potential source of net loss of individual well-being would be the value to the individual of opportunities foregone from use of time in volunteering, which would be offset to the extent that the individual obtains satisfaction from volunteering, or from recognition of her efforts. The effect of individual actions on the collective benefit being sought would depend on the size of the group seeking the collective benefit. In a large groups the actions of each individual tend make a small contribution to the objective being sought, so there would be a greater incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others.

The naïve model suggests to me that people would tend to volunteer to a greater extent when they had fewer opportunities for paid employment. It therefore suggests that volunteering would tend to decline if workforce participation increased. It also suggests that volunteering would be a substitute for other forms of charitable giving – people with time on their hands would tend to volunteer their time and people in well-paying jobs that give them little leisure would be more inclined to put their hands in their pockets to make financial donations. It also suggests that people would tend to volunteer to a greater extent in small, well-defined communities (e.g. country towns) where their efforts are more likely to be recognized that in major urban centres where individuals are more likely to get lost in the crowd.

How well does this naïve model explain volunteering in Australia? Not particularly well. The first point I noticed when I looked at the relevant section of the Productivity Commission’s recent report on ‘Contribution of the Not-for-profit sector’, is that there has been a consistent upward trend in rates of volunteering across all age groups over the last decade, although this has been offset to some extent by a decline in the average number of hours volunteered. This has occurred at a time when labour force participation has continued to increase.

As might be expected, ABS data show that volunteering rates are higher among women than among men. The difference is confined mainly to the 35-44 year age group – when most female volunteering could be expected to be associated with school canteens etc. People with young children are the group most likely to volunteer regularly, but they spend fewer hours per week volunteering than do people with older children and older people without children.

Again, as expected, the rate of volunteering is higher outside capital cities than within capital cities. But the difference is not huge. The rate for regular participation in voluntary work was 19% in capital cities and 23% outside capital cities in 2006.

The naïve model would not predict that employed people would be more likely to volunteer than unemployed people. For women, although those in full-time employment had the lowest rates of regular volunteering, those who were employed part-time had higher rates of regular volunteering than those classified as unemployed. For men, rates of volunteering for those in full-time and part-time employment were the same and higher than for those who were unemployed.

The most surprising departure from the naïve model relates to donations of money as a substitute for donation of time. I know such substitution does occur, but it doesn’t show up at an aggregate level in the ABS survey data. Volunteers are much more likely to have donated money or contributed financial assistance to someone outside the family in the last 12 months than non-volunteers.

In order to explain non-volunteering we seem to need a model of behaviour that recognizes that volunteers and non-volunteers have different personal characteristics. It seems that non-volunteers tend to have relatively weak links to the community in general. The evidence suggests that they are much less likely to have attended a community event recently. They are also less likely to agree with the proposition that most people can be trusted.

Other posts on volunteering:
This is the third in a series of post on volunteering. In the first post, Shona discussed her experience in a volunteer role in a community playgroup. In the second post I discussed some research on the determinants of volunteering.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What does research show about determinants of volunteering?

In the preceding post, What determines who volunteers?, Shona discussed her experience in getting parents to volunteer to help in running a play group. In this post I discuss some Australian research which suggests that volunteers fall into several distinct groups.

A paper by Sara Dolnicar and Melanie Randle, ‘What Moves Which Volunteers to Donate Their Time?’ uses data collected from a national survey of volunteer work conducted by the Australian in 2000 to segment the ‘market’ for volunteer work. The authors use motivations as a basis for statistical techniques that enable them to identify distinct subgroups of volunteers.

Six sub-groups were identified as follows:

• Classic volunteers are involved to do something worthwhile, gain personal satisfaction, and help others. They are older, less frequently active in the workforce, and very active in their volunteering efforts.

• Dedicated volunteers contribute the most hours per year to an average of six volunteering organizations.

• Personally involved volunteers appear to participate in volunteering temporarily, as long as (most probably) their child is part of an organization that relies on parental support.

• Volunteers for personal satisfaction and altruists (two sub-groups) are motivated by gaining their own satisfaction and represent the least distinct segments, with altruists doing the most work in the area of befriending and listening to people.

• Niche volunteers are young, new to volunteering, highly educated and state a variety of rather atypical reasons for volunteering, like feeling obliged to volunteer and having slid into volunteering rather passively, gaining work experience or as a result of religious beliefs.

These research findings are interesting but they don’t shed a great deal of light on the issues that Shona raised. The potential volunteers that Shona was most interested in would be in the ‘personally involved’ sub-group. The question is why some people become more involved than others.

Perhaps the people who are most involved are motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by the feelings they get from volunteering. Recent research findings suggest that it feels good to be good (but I am not sure that we needed researchers to tell us that).

It seems to me that human nature has evolved in such a way that people have a natural desire to contribute voluntarily to activities that are best undertaken collectively. If that makes sense then perhaps it would be more productive to try to explain why a substantial proportion of people are reluctant to volunteer. One idea that has crossed my own mind from time to time as a member of voluntary organizations is that I don’t want to be left ‘holding the baby’. (That expression might not be entirely appropriate in a discussion of volunteering in play groups, but for some reason I can’t resist using it.) It may be worth exploring whether people would be less reluctant to take on onerous voluntary roles if they had some assurance that they could readily pass them on to other members after a defined period.

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.