Helping Others or Helping Yourself

What motivates people to participate in volunteer work–genuine altruism or mere self-interest? Humanitarian Caitlin Boersma commits to a local food bank and finds that our perceptions of volunteering hardly matches the reality of it.

I started volunteering bimonthly at a local food bank. Before this begins to sound like I’m patting myself on the back, let me explain my motives.

As March comes to a close, I’ve been filling out applications for internships and positions for the next school year. Most of these applications asked the irrelevant question, “What community activities or volunteer organizations are you involved in?”. The more a person is involved does not directly relate to the “goodness” of his or her personality. I know plenty of people who look like saints on paper, but you would never want to work with them. On top of that, wouldn’t you want your employee to be least involved in other activities? If I were volunteering all over the place, I would have no time for a job.

Now, I could write this entire article about how that should have no bearing on getting a job. That said, I realize that most questions on an application are complete bullshit and therefore call for bullshit answers whether they are relevant to the job description or not.

Even though I was completely qualified for one position or another, I was forced to leave the community involvement question blank. My mind raced for things I could put down, but all of them would be stretching the truth. I figured that “I picked up trash that one time at this place for an afternoon” sounded worse than nothing at all.

Shamefully, I began volunteering at said food bank because I needed some material to write a truthful paragraph for the community involvement requirement.

After I spent my first Saturday of volunteering separating food and blacking out barcodes, I realized that nobody was there just for the sake of volunteering. Most people were there because they had to fulfill court-ordered community service. One woman who was working for community service hours said she’d been there for years. She knew everyone and was a much better help in showing me what to do than any of the actual employees. At first I wondered what on earth she could have done to earn such a large sentence, but then I realized that she would have been at the food bank regardless. When it was lunch time, she grabbed a can of clam chowder out of the soup box.

The only well-kempt volunteers were two young men, also there for community service hours. They just sat down and did nothing, openly pointing at people and chatting about them. I was appalled by their behavior, but I didn’t feel too good about myself either.

I didn’t feel guilty about volunteering solely to plump up my resume, but I did feel bad because it looked like I was volunteering just because I wanted to. That sounds strange, but there was a certain mindset of the place. There was a job to be done, and it was being accomplished. But no one was happy about it; no one was glad that they had to hand out food to people. Everyone else was forced to be there for one reason or another, and then there I was, with my college sweatshirt and a smile, ready to tell people that they could only choose one cereal.

After the experience, I was curious to find out how many Americans actually volunteered each year. I found on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website that 60.8 million Americans, or 26.2 percent of the population, volunteered between September 2006 and September 2007. That number seemed reasonable, but there are a couple facts that should be taken into consideration.

This 60.8 million represents the amount of people who at least volunteered once during the year. So whether you commit multiple hours a week to an organization or cleaned up your work’s Adopt-A-Highway site once this year, you are still considered a “volunteer.”

Also, adults with children were more likely to volunteer than adults without. The main programs women were involved in had to do with either teaching or tutoring, and men were most likely to coach or referee. It seems likely that the volunteering these adults were involved in were actually a result of their child’s involvement. These adults are also benefiting from the hours they volunteer because they are contributing to the development of their own kids. So in a sense, they’re actually the ones benefiting from their volunteer experience.

College graduates were most likely to volunteer, but educated people were least likely to engage in food preparation and distribution or any other form of general labor in favor of more cushy jobs like fundraising and managerial work.

I’m not trying to downplay the effort of 26.2 percent of Americans who gave of their time last year, but I want to point out how few of these volunteers spent time doing a job that was unpleasant or didn’t directly benefit their children.

Perhaps my complaints are unfounded. Who wouldn’t want to help out their kid’s baseball team or take a fundraising job over cleaning up a park? The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that some Americans do spend time helping their community, but the numbers also confirmed my suspicions that when people are serving their community, they’re also serving their own self-interests. It never occurred to me that I was neglecting to help my community until I needed to fill out internship applications.

When I arrived at the food bank, I expected a lot of church-going old ladies to be volunteering and was surprised that, in the real world, people need to fulfill community service hours and are not called by God, their hearts, or well-rounded resumes to give their time to help needy individuals.

If you decide you need to volunteer some of your time, even if it’s for vaguely selfish reasons, Volunteer Match is a great place to find an organization that interests you. Whether you volunteer to look like a good person, you need to assuage some guilt, or you’re one of those oddballs who actually likes helping people, your work will still count toward the betterment of your community.

Caitlin Boersma is studying political science and English, but spends most of her time analyzing pop culture. Her premise for a new reality TV show, Killing Andy Milonakis, has yet to be picked up by VH1. She is notorious for spending a week’s wages on a ticket to see Morrissey live.