Monday, 20 May 2013

Volunteering - are we really as altruistic as we think we are?

Last weekend, I spent three exhausting days running around an Outdoor Education Centre with a large group of Brownies (girl guides, not cake).  We headed down to Hexham on a bus on Friday night, which for some of the girls was not only their first time away from home but also their first time out of Scotland.  So their expectations were set pretty high...  No pressure then!

The weekend was hectic.  Before we even had time to put our bags down, we were whisked off for a quick meal and then taken to do archery. On Saturday, we did seven different activities (including crate climbing, walking along an aerial beam, a zip wire and a blindfolded obstacle course through the woods) with just a few minutes break between each.  By the time we reached the campfire in the evening, I think the only reason I was still functioning was the packet of illicit Opal Fruits (I think they call them Starburst these days...  Pah!) I was munching my way through!  Sunday was marginally less busy, with just two activities.  Add in packing and leaving (have you ever tried to coordinate 30 girls to do anything quickly?  Imagine trying to herd sheep...), plus the fact we were all exhausted (note to self - ALWAYS take a blanket), and the stress levels were starting to rise.  Thankfully, there was a DVD player on the bus, which meant I didn't spend the whole bus journey singing at the girls in the hope they would keep the mayhem to a dull roar.  I'm assuming we watched a film...  I vaguely remember the first 5 minutes of Shrek, and the last 10 minutes of Madagascar 3, and a weird dream about Brownies hanging by their ankles from climbing ropes and trees.  I hope that was a dream anyway...

There is a point to my story.  Bear with me.

I got home on Sunday night, and did I do what any sensible person would do - put my pyjamas on, make a cup of tea and lie on the sofa all evening?  No.  I dropped my bags, picked up some snacks and rushed off to a lovely friend's house to tell her all about my weekend. 

I love volunteering with this group of girls - they have such a wide range of experiences and abilities, and there is something incredibly rewarding about seeing them develop and become independent (mostly) young women.  

But starting to write my dissertation over the last week has really made me think about why I actually volunteer (I should point out now - my dissertation is about engagement and retention of volunteers).

Am I really doing this to help other people, or am I just doing this for me?  Why do I really give up an evening a week (this is a gross underestimation, but I can pretend this is all I do...), a room in my flat and the boot of my car to volunteering?  

This is how much I love volunteering!

Yes, I love helping girls learn how to become independent and make their own choices, to question things and to try new things.  But I also love the buzz I get from doing all these things.  I love the fact that I've been able to travel, and meet new people, and try new food and make amazing new friends.  I love that the opportunities I've had look great on my CV.

And it's that last point that makes me question my motives.  Would I still do it if I couldn't use any of this to impress people and get a decent job?

If someone turned round tomorrow and told me they would give me a million pounds but I had to give up either volunteering or a limb, would I choose volunteering?


I'd tell them to stick their million pounds and take my left arm.  I don't need it that much anyway.

Despite the stress of the occasional accidentally-stabbed-myself-in-the-eye/hand/chest child (and accident prone Little Owl (that's me)) and the stack of paperwork that inevitably follows; despite the hysterical tears of I-miss-my-mum-even-though-I'll-see-her-in-an-hour-and-a-half (how do these kids get through a day at school?!); despite the so-and-so-isn't-talking-to-me-because-I-did-something-I-shouldn't-have-done-and-it's-her-fault; despite the we're-not-listening-to-you-no-matter-how-loud-you-shout-or-how-nicely-you-ask...  Despite all of it, I would still give a limb before giving up.

I honestly don't know why, and I have the feeling my dissertation is going to make me even more confused.  But I do know that it's not purely altruism that drives me.  And I'm ok with that.  I'm starting to realise that it is ok to think about yourself sometimes, despite what the Brownie Guide law tells us

But please don't tell my Brownies that.     


  1. I think it is so hard to quantify why we volunteer to those who do not volunteer, we end up using the cliches "it looks good on my CV" "its an adventure" "I have brilliant experiences", "I do it all for the girls" but as you say it runs much deeper than that and is only something you can fully understand when you begin to volunteer. I don't think I will ever be able to explain why I spend 3 hours a week with sometimes very aggravating 5-10 year olds, nor will I be able to explain why I haven't walked away and stopped doing it; but I will be able to say that because I volunteer (in one of the greatest UK organisations) I am a happier person.
    I am going to stop trying to justify people why I volunteer , just tell them " I volunteer" . They can work out what they are missing!!

    1. Thanks Haneliz! I don't think we need to "justify" anything. We do what we do because it's what we do, and we (mostly!) love it... :-D

  2. (I typed a rather longer response but lost it as wasn't signed into the right Google Account, so here's the shorter version...)

    Different people volunteer for different reasons, or combination thereof, and they are all valid reasons. At the end of the day, the volunteer contribute towards the good cause, it doesn't matter why they do it.

  3. I volunteer because I need to.
    I have a cause I am committed to and I do what I can to further it ( )I spend hours every week doing things that very few people know about, because it's worth doing, and because it may make a difference in the real world eventually.
    But I do it because I need to be useful and to make that difference; that doesn't mean I shouldn't do it.