The Case for Selfish Volunteers

Selfish Volunteers

When you recruit for your organization, do you avoid selfish volunteers? Should you? Can self-interest drive positive change? I’d like to challenge you to start looking at how people with “personal agendas” can actually help make an impact in our communities.

Confession time! I have to admit that there have been a few times when I volunteered for purely selfish reasons. The first time I volunteered to serve on a Board of Directors it was because I thought the experience would help me gain an elected position (I still didn’t win). And then there was the time I volunteered so that I could get close to a guy I liked. That didn’t work out, either.

What’s interesting, though, is that I continued volunteering for those organizations long after the reason I originally started was no longer valid.

Which just means that we need to shift our perspective.

Volunteering tends to be associated with acts of pure altruism. While selflessness is undoubtedly admirable, it’s essential to recognize that self-interest can coexist alongside acts of service. When people engage in volunteer activities driven by self-interest, they often bring a dedication, focus and drive that they might not otherwise have offered, resulting in a more committed and impactful contribution.

Ann is a good example. She was a lawyer who wanted to become a partner in her law firm. It was a big practice, and there wasn’t much to help her stand out from the crowd. She started doing pro bono work for a charity in her city that the founding partner of the firm supported. She gained experience in aspects of her field of law that had rarely crossed her desk in her paid work, and she came to be seen as an expert in those areas. Ann ended up catching the eye of the founding partner, and she was eventually made a partner. She still volunteers at that charity because, she says “It’s not often I can advance my career, and feel good about it!”

That commitment is a key benefit of having selfish volunteers.

Volunteers who find their needs and desires met while volunteering are more likely to sustain their involvement over the long term. They will be motivated to continue pushing toward the organization’s goals as long as they are making progress toward their own. Even when they’re faced with setbacks or challenges, they will have concrete reasons to persevere.

Mahmoud started working at a local foodbank shortly after he immigrated to Canada. He had been a chef in his country of origin, but hadn’t been able to find work since he’d arrived. The concept of volunteering was fairly new to him. He worried about his poor language skills, and he was hesitant to “waste his time working for nothing”. But once his sponsor listed the benefits he could gain (local experience, networking, language practice, etc), he tried it.

Over the next few months he gained a thorough understanding of Canadian food safety practices, a greater fluency in English and lots and lots of new friends. At the end of three months, one of those friends recommended him to a local high-end restaurant. The rest, as they say, is history. Now, over 10 years later, he not only still works at the food bank himself, he encourages all new immigrants that he meets to volunteer there, too.

And that’s not the only ripple effect.

There are a number of stereotypes about volunteers and volunteering that prevent some people from stepping forward. There are a lot of people who feel that they “should” volunteer. That it’s all about giving back, and sacrificing their time for others. And, let’s face it, people don’t really want to do what they’re “supposed to do”. So what if we could change their perceptions, and have them see the benefit to themselves in volunteering? People would be more likely to try volunteering themselves if they could see others volunteering for selfish reasons and being appreciated – and even celebrated – for doing so. Selfish volunteers are walking billboards for the positive personal results to be gained. I think we do our organizations a disservice when we perpetuate the view of volunteering as a purely altruistic activity.

Volunteer engagement that’s driven purely by self-interest shouldn’t be undervalued. Ultimately, when someone’s personal interest aligns with the needs of society, the result benefits everyone. And there’s always the chance that, like me, the people who volunteer for selfish reasons will stick around even after those reasons are past.

So, let’s embrace our selfish volunteers; they can be a powerful force for good!

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