The selfish volunteer. (Or reciprocal versus philanthropic volunteering)

I live in a small village on top of a hill in the Pennines: population 500. Or thereabouts. It’s got a wider mix of people than you might expect for a remote village but on the whole not especially poor or rich. 

What’s really striking about it is that it sustains very few consumer facing commercial enterprises yet has a thriving civil society:

  • There’s an old Methodist chapel that hosts a range of activities: playgroups for kids, an occasional cafe, a history society, a role playing group, regular fetes and festivals 
  • There’s a volunteer-run co-operative shop that open every Saturday and sells local produce and crafts
  • There’s a school that is kept going in part because of a load of active parents who support the small number of staff
  • There’s a community orchard, a gardening group, and loads of other activities, plus a very active Google group for everyone living in the village

It’s these things which keep the village going and make it a vibrant place to live. And what’s interesting is just how volunteer run it is – nobody is paid to do any of these things, they just contribute to the village’s activities.

Why do they contribute? What motivates them?

It’s not really philanthropy. The same people might give up time to support Amnesty or Oxfam or Mind where their volunteer activity primarily benefits other people. But volunteering in their local village is more self help than philanthropy. By volunteering time to the various groups they help create and sustain an active scene in the village that benefits them and others in their immediate circle.

There is always the ‘free rider’ problem, and not everyone wants to or has time to volunteer, or even use the volunteer run groups or services on offer. But many do. And they do it because a collective effort is needed to make things happen, and if they didn’t volunteer then those things simply wouldn’t be there.

This draws attention, I think, to an overlooked kind of motivation for volunteering: volunteering driven by mutual aid and self help rather than philanthropy or, put differently, volunteering that benefits that person if – but only if – others also volunteer in that group.

Reciprocity and mutual self-interest rather than altruism is the driver of this kind of volunteering and it has been crucial to the development of a whole series of user run organisations which wouldn’t exist if they were run commercially, from informal mutual aid networks to user led mental health groups to the origins of friendly societies to amateur dramatics societies to community sports clubs… 
Most thinking about volunteering focuses on the philanthropic motivation but just important is to recognise that reciprocal volunteering as a form of collective self help sustains so much of what happens in civil society.

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