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Super-savvy-altruistic-ex-Grads-are-precocious; should we be doing more to support the ‘selfish volunteer’?

15 February 2013 Blog
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It is unsurprising that altruism is the most common reason people volunteer. In 2005, nfpSynergy’s The 21st Century Volunteer report found the motivations most often cited by volunteers are a belief in the cause and a desire to make a difference. But in today’s world, motives for volunteering go beyond altruism. We have seen the rise of ‘selfish volunteers’- “people who are as interested in what they get out of volunteering as what they put in.” As the public become more demanding as consumers and service-users, they are expecting more from the volunteering experience. 

Career benefits are one of the most prominent examples. A TimeBank survey showed 94% of workers who volunteered to learn new skills had benefited by getting their first job, improving their salary or being promoted. The survey also showed that among 200 of the UK’s leading businesses, 73% of employers would employ a candidate with volunteering experience over one without, while 94% of employers believe that volunteering can add to skills. 58% of employers even said that voluntary work experience can actually be more valuable than experience gained in paid employment. 
I think I approach volunteering with an element of selfish altruism. This time two years ago, I was finishing university and looking for the opportunity to apply the skills I had learnt to the real world and to keep on learning. After several uninspiring career events, I hit the jackpot with a talk on working in the non-profit sector. Volunteering had always appealed to me as I wanted to give my time to a cause that I believed in. But a different key message came out of this career talk; as a recent graduate I could gain significantly more valuable experiences for my career development through volunteering than in paid employment. The 21st Century Volunteer report shows that volunteering gives the opportunity for more responsibility, road testing of different careers and to develop a professional network.
Charities have to be open to harnessing this selfish altruism among recent graduates and broader social groups. If they don't use use the skills and enthusiasm available for the benefit of both parties, they are missing a massive opportunity.
There are some key issues to consider:

1) Does the individual benefit more from career-orientated volunteering than the organisation? 

With high expectations of what they will get from the experience, career-orientated volunteers could be more demanding about the type of work they are willing to do, meaning they are less inclined to cover the menial tasks. Organisations need to stimulate and challenge their volunteers, whilst also addressing any need for administrative support. 

2) More professionalisation of volunteering? 

Our Charity Awareness Monitor consistently finds that those of a higher socio-economic status are more likely to volunteer. Additionally, the reduced public services expenditure has created pressure to recruit more high-skilled volunteers into previously paid jobs. Would catering for career-minded graduates further reduce the number of volunteers with lower socio-economic status or additional social needs?

3) What level of long-term commitment can a career-focussed volunteer offer? 

For most office-based voluntary positions, organisations ask for a commitment of 2-3 days a week for at least a few months. For many individuals this is an ideal platform to improve their skills and gain experience. However, this may not be sustainable long term, as the volunteer inevitably will be looking for a source of income.
Last year I applied to be a policy and campaigns volunteer for an organisation that I actively support. It seemed like the perfect fit as I had the experience they were looking for and could offer to volunteer with them one day a week for a year. I was disappointed to hear that, although they wanted me to volunteer for them, they had another candidate who could work more frequently. The structured and formal nature of their volunteering guidelines meant they were unwilling to take me on in a smaller capacity.
Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Perhaps. But I strongly believe that organisations should be harnessing individuals who can offer the skills they are looking for, even if it is through smaller ad-hoc projects. Even if the volunteer cannot offer much time now, there is a greater chance of them becoming an advocate for the cause or even a future employee if some level of connection is maintained.
Altruism is still the most likely reason for volunteering. However, volunteering also gives a lot back to the individual. With an increasing number of graduates struggling to get onto the career ladder, I strongly believe that charities must embrace people with the ‘selfish’ reason of volunteering for career benefits. Otherwise, everyone could miss out.

Want to volunteer your agreement? Or have we careered off course? Leave us a comment below.

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Submitted by Peter Maple on
This is, frankly, unsuprising, and an extension of Maple's "Spectrum of Philanthropy" (usually applied to cash gifts, but the same principle). Few gifts are completely altruistic. Most seek some reciprocity even if it is the feel good factor. Volunteering to have something valuable on the CV has been around as long as I've been in the sector!

Submitted by Emma Clarke Conway on
Charities can benefit greatly from the giving natures of volunteers, so why should the volunteer not get something back. We want to encourage people to continue to volunteer, something has to motivate them and while the feelgood factor is appealing, we all have to eat.

Submitted by Janet Thorne on
I always think that alturism is a red herring when it comes to volunteering. People have always had a range of motivations which include the feel good factor of 'giving back', social contact, learning skills etc. What the article above is really about is skills based volunteering where people volunteer their expertise rather than just their time. The benefits of this type of volunteering for both charity and volunteer have always been high. The charity gains expertise and capcity that it could not otherwise afford. The volunteer has the reward of seeing their work make a significant impact for a cause they care about, and the chance to hone their skills in a new environment, aquire new ones, extend their network, and work with insiprational colleagues (hopefully!).

Submitted by Anne Layzell, i... on
Agree with Peter Maple - I remember many eons ago giving talks to students about the benefits to their career of volunteering. It's just one of the motivations to volunteer.
While I accept that the sector could be doing a lot more to accommodate a diversity of potentially valuable volunteer applicants, it's also a fact of life that the volunteering function in small to medium nfps particularly, is starved of resources to manage volunteers - staff, budget, hours - and that does impact on the ability to accommodate the needs of today's volunteers (btw, I don't like the use of the word 'selfish', prefer 'healthily self-interested). Also, volunteer managers can be inexperienced, or managing volunteers in addition to their substantive role - they can be risk averse, and unsure about what volunteers can be asked to do; and we don't yet have a professional body or standard volunteer management training structure to guide them. It's sad, but maybe unsurprising that an organisation didn't feel it could be flexible enough to make the most of Fiona's offer.

Submitted by Fiona Wallace on
Thanks for reading and for your comments.

Janet, I think you hit the nail on the head that my article is about skills based volunteering, rather than the fact that volunteering goes beyond altruism.

Anne, you quite rightly point out that lack of resources to manage volunteers is a huge barrier to taking on extra skills based volunteers. I agree that there would need to be more investment in volunteer managers to give them the support and training required for a more flexible approach to volunteering.

Submitted by Leigh Horton on
There is a balance to be struck. For a charity, having volunteers does have resource implications: they need recruiting, inducting, managing, somewhere to sit, telephone and IT access. The law surrounding volunteers also makes some charities nervous, it's easy to slip into claims about employment rights, health and safety or for volunteers to breach eg data protection laws. But equally charities need to ensure that volunteers do gain something from their experience. Just taking volunteers for what you can get from them is not a recipe for a beneficial relationship. And why should volunteers be totally altruistic? Charity staff do not work out of altruism, they get paid, so why shouldn't volunteers get something out of their experience too? Especially when the volunteers are brought in to do work that a staff member continues to get paid for, but hasn't actually got the skills to do themselves. Now there's a whole other debate...

Submitted by Lynda Gerty on
I couldn't agree more, Fiona! Your story is so similar to the ones we hear from volunteers on almost a daily basis. At Vantage Point, we believe there is an abundance of talented people who are willing - even yearning - to contribute their skills and expertise to causes and organizations. We are missing a huge opportunity to advance our missions when we fail to engage them in meaningful ways!

At Vantage Point, we've spent the last decade studying this issue - and experimenting with solutions. Along the way, we've reinvented our own organization. And last month, we released a new book, titled The Abundant Not-for-Profit, to share what we've learned and propose a new way forward for the sector.

I'd love to share a copy of the e-book with the NFP Synergy team, and with your readers. I'm very curious to hear what you think, and whether the ideas in the book transfer to the sector "across the pond." Just email me at, and I’ll send you a link to download it for free.

Thanks for this honest and bold article, Fiona.

Lynda Gerty
Director, Engagement
Vantage Point

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