CCR Blog

What Motivates Us to Volunteer in a Capitalistic, Whatsinitforme Society?

Apr 23 2012 Edwin Blanton
Edwin Blanton
Edwin Blanton is Co-Founder of Ready, Willing...Enable! an international non-profit focused on educational programs for children with disabilities.

I’d been through the tunnel countless times before. I knew its hot, stale air. I knew its crowdedness. I knew its posters for the latest Broadway shows. I was there in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops with a twenty pound backpack that was killing my shoulders. I knew the saying on the crossbeams by heart “so tired…if late…get fired”. But this time through the tunnel on a late July afternoon was different.  This time, I saw her.  I saw her sitting there to my right up ahead, on the pavement.  Black, late-forties, white t-shirt.  I figured she was asking for money, or food. I had been burned too many times on the New York City subway giving people food just to see them throw it away because they really just wanted cash for their addictions.  I thought this was going to be the same as I kept up my brisk pace.  As I passed her, I noticed two things that I had not observed from a distance. She was blind in one eye, and instead of asking for a handout, she was saying, “Someone please help me up.” I had already passed her when her words finally registered in my brain. I paused for a minute to look at the Pakistani teenager running the newspaper stand. He didn’t seem concerned. I saw the dozens and dozens of other people pass right on by without stopping. Maybe they knew something that I didn’t. Maybe she does this everyday and then takes your wallet? What motivation would I have to stop and help in this situation?

In fact, what motivates any of us to volunteer in a capitalistic, whatsinitforme society? What motivates us to give time and talent to others when we expect no compensation, or maybe, even gratitude or recognition? This was already on my mind that day in the tunnel. My time in the tunnel was during a month when I traveled the eastern half of the U.S. by train, from Texas to Virginia, Connecticut to Missouri. During my travel time, I was asking people I encountered two questions – Do you volunteer? What motivates you to volunteer? I speak a lot with college students at the small liberal arts college where I work as coordinator of community service. I have my students read "What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Service" by Adam Davis, the Director of the Center for Civic Reflection, and discuss many of the key points. In it, he mentions that volunteer motivations can be filed into five categories. I’ve interpreted them for my own purposes to be: because we love other people and want to serve them, because we realize we’re all on this planet together, because of our own self-interests, because God calls us to serve, and because we feel guilty. 

Which of the above categories do I fit in? I find volunteer motivation fascinating and often wonder what motivates me to volunteer. The first nineteen years of my life I spent on a farm in the Ozark mountains of southern Missouri. This economically depressed area of the country was home to my father, a farmer, and my mother, an elementary school teacher. The closing of the mines and factories caused unemployment in the county to be 18%. In the summer we would take the produce from our garden and sell it on the courthouse square. Afterward, we would take any leftover or surplus produce to the local food pantry and volunteer at packing food boxes for people whose socioeconomic status did not provide them with the basics as it did for my family. This is where my parents, though limited in some ways and blessed in others, taught me the importance of sharing one’s treasure, talent, and time. 

Sure, my parents had encouraged me to volunteer, but there was a limit as they discouraged me from joining the Peace Corps (which I did anyway), and later watched nervously as I quit full-time employment to focus on the non-profit with which I had been a founding partner. Was I volunteering this much because I felt guilty? Or because God was calling me to serve? Or any of the other reasons? The question I would ask myself is, why can’t I just accept my place in the whatsinitforme society, and focus my energy on less noble pursuits?

I asked the college students I work with which of these categories they fit in. Few admitted to being in the guilty category, or the self-interest category. But what about the everyday American? And that is how I ended up travelling the U.S. by train, and asking strangers at random if they volunteered and what motivates them. I asked in the train stations and in the club car. I asked on the Washington Mall. I set up a sandwich board sign with the questions and set outside NYU, Union Station in Chicago, and Forrest Park in St. Louis. Of course, I met a lot of interesting characters while asking my two questions.

Carolyn, a 19-year-old college student from Brooklyn told me in Central Park one day that she volunteers for animal causes because “I’m passionate about animals and the need for humane treatment.”  She really did seem to have a love for animals, especially the horses giving carriage rides around the park. She asked me to sign a petition to support fair treatment of them. 

Richard, 62 from Nebraska gave a broad reason for why he volunteers. He said “The world doesn’t have to be the way it is.” So he works to change it. 

Jennifer, 37 from Corpus Christi, Texas said she was motivated to volunteer by meeting wonderful people who she otherwise may not have ever had the chance to meet.

Andrew, 34 from Saint Charles, Missouri mentioned he volunteered because he feels guilty that he doesn’t have a lot of money to donate. 

Becky, 54 from Indiana likes to volunteer in order to “send out positive karma”.

When I asked Travis, a 17 year-old from New Braunfels, Texas why he volunteered, he simply responded, “Because of Jesus Christ.”

One elderly man who claimed to be 100 mentioned that he hadn’t volunteered for nearly 70 years because during World War II he volunteered to collect scrap metal to help out “Uncle Joe” (Joseph Stalin) who would later be viewed as the enemy. Another older man responded to the questions with anti-Semite slurs. I wasn’t collecting the best data, though for the most part I was having a lot of interesting conversations. 

Which brings me back to the tunnel. In my mind I asked myself what to do. I had slowed my pace, but was still quite a ways past the woman. As a person of faith, was there a call for me to help her from the Lord? What is the bystander effect that I have heard of? Could it be that no one is helping her because everyone thinks someone else will? Could I live with the guilt if I didn’t go back to assist? I turned around, and walked back. The amount of time that lapsed since I had first passed and when I returned to her was less than a minute. I would estimate that 60-90 people had walked by her in that brief period of time. She had rolled onto her side and was trying with her hands to inch up the wall. I could read the back of her t-shirt then, which said “Jesus Saves”. I walked up to her, knelt down, and asked, “Ma’am, would you like some help?” She responded in the affirmative, and I assisted her to her feet. As she stood next to the wall, I asked her if she was “okay”. She said, “yes” and thanked me for stopping to help. Another man had stopped to observe this interaction while everyone else kept walking. 

I continued on my way to my subway train after that, and in the days afterward I would pass through that tunnel under Times Square to see if I would see her again, to talk with her, get to know her story, and find out how many times she had been hoping someone would volunteer a hand. I thought about the man that stopped. What had he seen? Two people who would never meet again. It didn’t take much time and effort on my part, and something was made possible for the woman. Maybe the question I should ask is not “What motivated me to volunteer to assist her?”, but “What motivated other people to not?” What did the people gain by not stopping?

I’m not sure if after my summer of travelling, I have a better grasp on what motivates me and others to volunteer. Why a person volunteers is perhaps not nearly as important as if a person volunteers. But one thing I am sure of is that volunteers are still needed everywhere. Volunteers are still needed on efforts that range from doing large-lifesaving tasks, to doing the small selfless things – like simply helping someone to stand.


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