Altruism is defined as feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people, and a lack of selfishness. Further definition adds unselfish regard for, or the devotion to the welfare of others. Dictionary definitions place altruism and selfishness at opposite ends of the same spectrum.
To develop a deeper understanding of volunteer intrinsic motivation, an alternative view on altruism and selfishness is proposed. In volunteerism,
the terms are not mutually exclusive. Altruism, the desire to serve others without regard for self, and selfishness, the desire to serve self without regard for others, peacefully co-exist in the heart of every volunteer. A volunteer’s intrinsic motivators are a delicate blend of both the desire to do for others, and the desire to take care of self. Altruism and selfishness both exist on a dual sliding scale, varying according to the life influences of the volunteer and the circumstances of the volunteer opportunity.
In an informal study in 2014, volunteers were asked to respond Twitter-style, with a 140-character limit, to complete a simple phrase:
“The reason why I choose to offer my time and talents as a volunteer is . . . .” The responses revealed two key themes: 1) it’s all about giving,
and 2) it’s all about receiving.
The results of the study are detailed in the book, "Engaging the Head, Heart and Hands of a Volunteer."
Leaders of volunteers should not judge or label those who profess their own needs ahead of selfless service. Those volunteers are still choosing to serve. Their time and talents can, and will, make a difference. For some, the ego-centric aspects of volunteer service may be so intense, they inspire exceptional performance!
Recognize that it is acceptable to serve self while serving a cause. Embrace the give to get mindset as a natural part of volunteerism. Unless the volunteer’s motive for serving is in conflict with the vision, mission and values of the organization, leaders should welcome all reasons volunteers choose to serve. A leader of volunteers is encouraged to ask the why question not to filter out selfish volunteers, but to understand the most important insight a volunteer can share.
The key learning point for the leader of volunteers is to recognize that both altruistic and selfish forces are at work in each volunteer. These forces combine to produce a volunteer’s answer to the why question.
guiding leaders of volunteers to feed the passion of those who choose to serve