Cover Story

Like many people who generally enjoy their careers, Dan Toporek nevertheless sometimes wondered if there were something missing--something else he could be doing to contribute to global improvement and well-being.

Instead of quitting his job, though, Toporek, the vice president of corporate communications for the travel Web site Travelocity, decided to put his company's name and resources to use. He and several co-workers convinced their bosses to launch a new program called Travel for Good to promote volunteer vacations.

On such vacations--sometimes called "voluntourism"--people spend their trip time on activities like cleaning up national parks or building houses for Habitat for Humanity. And these vacations are becoming steadily more popular. One nonprofit service vacation organizer, GlobeAware, says that its registrations have increased 33 percent since 2000. Another--Earthwatch--has seen a 40 percent increase over the past several years.

Toporek and his colleagues spent many hours outside their regular workdays putting together the Travel for Good program, which includes a Web site that provides information about GlobeAware, Earthwatch and other groups, and competitive grant awards that will provide money for Travelocity employees and customers to take service vacations. The program launched in September.

"We've gotten a lot of employees involved in running it," Toporek says. "We're really excited, so we don't mind putting in the extra time."

This kind of behavior might be admirable--but, from a psychologist's point of view, it's also puzzling. Whether it be Toporek and his colleagues spending extra hours at work, or their customers who give up relaxation time on vacation, people who volunteer are doing work that promises them no obvious personal gain and may involve significant costs.

Yet in the United States, nearly one out of three adults regularly spends some time volunteering, according to University of Minnesota psychologist Mark Snyder, PhD, who studies volunteerism. And in this season of gifts and giving--and of New Year's resolutions--volunteering may be on even more people's minds than usual.

"When I initially started thinking about this, I was struck by how much easier it was to come up with reasons why people shouldn't volunteer than why they should," Snyder says. "It's time consuming, it's stressful, it takes time away from your job or family or leisure." What is it, he began to ask, that propels so many people to donate their time, their energy and their efforts anyway?

Multiple motives

Snyder and his colleagues have been working to answer that question for more than 20 years. In the mid-1980s, he and Claremont Graduate University psychologist Allen Omoto, PhD, began studying volunteers providing care for patients with HIV/AIDS.

"These people embodied all the details of volunteering," Snyder says. "They were developing an ongoing, helping relationship with a complete stranger. And it was with the backdrop of a lot of stress--working with someone who has a serious illness."

Omoto agrees, adding, "in the context of HIV there were particularly high costs [to volunteering], because of the prejudice and discrimination at that time."

Snyder, Omoto and their colleagues eventually surveyed volunteers who did all kinds of other community work too, as well as young, middle-aged and older volunteers.

Over the years, they've identified five primary motivations for volunteering:

  • Values. Volunteering to satisfy personal values or humanitarian concerns. For some people this can have a religious component.

  • Community concern. Volunteering to help a particular community, such as a neighborhood or ethnic group, to which you feel attached.

  • Esteem enhancement. Volunteering to feel better about yourself or escape other pressures.

  • Understanding. Volunteering to gain a better understanding of other people, cultures or places.

  • Personal development. Volunteering to challenge yourself, meet new people and make new friends, or further your career.

Different types of volunteers have slightly different levels of these motivations, according to Snyder. Younger volunteers, for example, are more likely to volunteer for career-related reasons, while older volunteers more often cite abstract ideas of good citizenship and contributing to their communities.

Still, Snyder says, "In many ways it's the similarities across types of volunteering that are striking."

Somewhat more recently, the researchers have begun to study thefactors that help organizations hold on to volunteers. For example, in one study, published in 1998 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 74, No. 6, pages 1516-1530), psychologist E. Gil Clary, PhD, and Snyder surveyed 61 hospital volunteers about their motivations for volunteering, and then later about their experiences as a volunteer. They found that the people whose experiences best matched their motivations were more satisfied with the experience. Those same people also said that they'd be more likely to continue volunteering.

"People have an agenda when they volunteer--and that's in the best sense of the word," says Clary. "So outcomes depend on whether an organization can fulfill the volunteer's agenda."

Interestingly, the researchers have also found that people who have more seemingly "selfish" motivations--esteem enhancement, personal development and understanding--are more likely to stick with a volunteering organization longer than people with more "other focused" motivations, such as values, according to Omoto.

"It could be because the volun-teering is more likely to satisfy those motivations," he says. "If your values say you should help people, you could probably always switch to another organization that also helps people."

Omoto and Snyder say that their research could help organizations that rely on volunteers. For example, if the organizations can figure out their volunteers' primary motives for volunteering, then they could tailor ads and other recruitment strategies to address those motivations--and they could try to steer the volunteers to activities most likely to satisfy them.

Theoretical underpinnings

Psychologists who investigate the real-world motivations of real-life volunteers do so against the background of other researchers who study and discuss the theory of altruism.

These researchers are mainly concerned with whether altruism, as a concept, actually exists. Do people do altruistic things--including volunteering--because they are truly altruistic and selfless, or because they themselves receive some sort of benefit from every altruistic-seeming act?

University of Kansas psychologist Dan Batson, PhD, believes that true altruism exists as a motivational state with the goal of increasing another person's welfare. He theorizes that such selflessness is based on the empathy people feel for others. In a classic study, for example, he asked participants to watch as a confederate received fake "shocks" for failing a memory test. He found that when he asked people to imagine that person's pain, those who said that they felt compassion for the person also said they'd be willing to take several shocks on the person's behalf, even though they were allowed to leave the experiment at any time.

"We as humans are capable of a motive that has another's welfare as the ultimate goal," Batson says.

But Arizona State University psychology professor Robert Cialdini, PhD, disagrees. He says that while empathy does lead to increased helping, it does so not because of pure altruism but because thinking of another person's pain makes us sad, and one way to make ourselves feel better is to be helpful. Another possibility is that taking another person's perspective actually causes us to feel some overlap between ourselves and that other person, Cialdini says, and so we help them the way we would help ourselves.

As evidence for this, Cialdini has found that when participants are made to feel similar to another person--by giving them a fake electroencephalogram exam and telling them that they have sibling-like similar brain waves--and then are told to empathize with that person, they're more likely to help them. But when people don't feel similar to another person, they're less likely to help that person, even if they're instructed to empathize with them.

"What we argue is that taking the perspective of another person can indeed lead to increased helping," Cialdini says. "But we don't assign it to a kind of pure altruism. We say that it's associated with a form of egoism, in which the self receives enhanced benefits." Certainly in the animal kingdom, egoism, it seems, is the driver of apparent altruism (see "Altruism: an accident of nature?").

Most psychologists who study volunteerism say that although such theoretical arguments are important, they may not have much bearing on the practical question of why people volunteer.

"I don't doubt that, from a theoretical perspective, one can derive differences," Snyder says. "But in the real world, these things are intimately wrapped up. The same act of volunteering can have an altruistic component, reflecting a true concern for the welfare of others, but also an egoistic component, in that the volunteer receives clear benefits to the self. It's better to see the two feeding each other, rather than being in competition."

Further Reading

  • Batson, C. (1998). Altruism and prosocial behavior. In D.T. Gilbert, S.T. Fiske & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2 (4th Ed., pp. 282–316). Boston: McGraw Hill.

  • Clary, E.G., & Snyder, S. (1999). The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8 156–159.

  • Maner, J. et al (2002). The effects of perspective taking on motivations for helping: Still no evidence for altruism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1,601–1,610.

  • Omoto, A., & Snyder, S. (2002). Considerations of community: The context and process of volunteerism. The American Behavioral Scientist, 45, 846–867.