Applied Psychology OPUS

The Volunteer Experience: Understanding and Fostering Global Citizenship

Alfredo Daniel Novoa & Vera Stiefler Johnson

Over the past century, developed countries like the United States have established programs such as the U.S. Peace Corps (1961) to conduct unofficial aid and development work. These charitable and service-oriented institutions and organizations have prompted a growth in the social action known as “formal volunteerism” (Grönlund et al., 2011). In the past, volunteerism consisted of informal helping actions between members of the same community or religious institutions. However, formal volunteerism is becoming increasingly more common in both individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

The widespread growth of volunteer organizations is related to a number of societal factors as well as the increase of available human, social, and cultural capital (Wilson & Musick, 1997). United States volunteers currently provide about 4 billion hours of service per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Grönlund et al. (2011) suggest that structural factors such as socioeconomic status, age, and the state’s overall promotion of well being predict both volunteerism and reported altruistic motives for volunteering. Indeed, research shows that growth in the non-profit sector increases opportunities for volunteerism in the United States (Anheier & Solomon, 1999). In the United States, groups like the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) provide volunteer opportunities to more than 5 million Americans. Among younger U.S. populations, many educational institutions value, encourage, and in some cases even mandate volunteer participation both locally and abroad. In the U.S., 78% of all students volunteer (Grönlund et al., 2011). Even institutions of higher education now incorporate service learning components into much of their programming, which has led to a noted increase in the rate of volunteerism among college students.

Some non-profit charity organizations increasingly promote volunteerism as an altruistic endeavor, whereas others tend to advertise the social and career benefits of volunteer service. It also appears that collectivistic and individualistic cultures tend to differ in what motivates people to volunteer (Grönlund et al., 2011). Although national data only informs the public of volunteer participation and retention rates, it is important to understand the specific motivational factors that influence volunteerism, particularly with regard to how these motivational factors may differ within collectivistic and individualistic cultures. The current paper seeks to discuss an imperative construct relating to volunteerism: the interplay between individualistic versus collectivistic cultural systems, altruistic and egoistic motivation, and their relation to volunteer participation.

Cultural Antecedents to Volunteerism

Despite the ability of structural systems to influence the needs and norms for volunteerism in different countries (Billis, 1993), present knowledge of how specific cultural values influence volunteerism is limited. More specifically, current understandings of collectivism and individualism as they pertain to more specific cultural facets, such as altruism and egoism, dictate the focus of research that examines volunteer motivations in the non-profit arena.

Collectivism and individualism are common terms among social scientists that contrast Eastern and Western cultural dimensions such as inner-directedness, conformity, and autonomy (Hsu, 1981). Anthropologists have since defined individualism, which is typical of Western cultures, as an individual's drive to act on private interests. Collectivism, which is typical of Eastern cultures, is defined as an individual’s obligation to pursue the interest of the group as a whole (Hui & Triandis, 1986). The literature on volunteerism lacks an exploration of the volunteer process through the lens of collectivism and individualism (for exceptions, see Finkelstein, 2010). Utilizing these cultural constructs can help to explain cultural motivations for volunteerism and aid our understanding of sustained volunteering.

A basic tenet of individualism is an emphasis on autonomy and self-fulfillment (Finkelstein, 2010). Research shows that volunteers with an individualistic orientation develop greater respect for the individual, which can foster civic participation (Waterman, 1981). In the United States, which is commonly considered to be an individualistic society, about 26% of the population engages in volunteering activities every year, a relatively high rate (Eisner, Grimm, Maynard, & Washburn, 2009). Members of individualistic societies are also more likely to work with diverse people and groups (Glaser-Segura & Anghel, 2002). However, some researchers argue that the amount of time each person spends volunteering is more valuable than the rate of volunteerism as a whole, as it is a more accurate indication of the sustainability of volunteer commitment to a certain organization or cause (Hartenian & Lilly, 2009). Indeed, an average of one-third of United States volunteers do not return to their respective organizations the following year to offer their services (Eisner, Grimm, Maynard, & Washburn, 2009). This phenomenon is decidedly more discernable in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures (Finkelstein, 2010). Thus, research suggests that although more people in individualistic cultures may volunteer, each person volunteers for a shorter amount of time, making only a cursory impact in the organizations they choose to aid.

In keeping with this apparent trend, Grönlund et al. (2011) have asserted that sustained volunteerism may be more linked to collectivism, a conclusion that is reflected in the high rates of volunteerism in South Korea. Research on collectivistic orientations has found that having a communal mindset predicts time spent volunteering (Mattis et al., 2000). In addition, people in collectivistic societies tend to have a centrality in their social norms, which increases the likelihood of volunteering (Hofstede, 2001). In fact, some have found that people in collectivist societies are indeed more likely to volunteer (Grönlund et. al, 2011; Parboteeah, Cullen, & Kim, 2004). Conversely, other studies indicate that individualistic countries tend to have high levels of volunteerism and civic engagement, suggesting that individualism may promote formal volunteerism as well (Finklestein, 2011; Kemmelmeier, Jambor, & Letner, 2006). This disparity between findings suggests a need to understand what functions other than cultural features such as individualism and collectivism influence volunteers to continue donating their time. In addition, it is important to understand how governments can promote these functions to create more sustainable volunteer models.

Social structures and norms certainly influence volunteerism within different cultures. Nonetheless, there continues to be a limited understanding of cultural influences in both collectivistic and individualistic societies on volunteerism. Therefore, an emerging body of literature is starting to examine volunteerism, and volunteer motivation, with regard to more specific cultural values than those frequently found at the societal level. Two such cultural values are altruism and egoism.

Altruism and Egoism

The understanding that different individuals can engage in the same volunteer behavior while having entirely different motivations adds to the complexity of the current discussion. Traditionally, researchers and laypersons alike assume that people enter the volunteer workforce with altruistic motives. Altruism, as defined by Hartenian and Lilly (2009), is concern about others’ welfare and behavior and a commitment to helping, often at a personal expense. In a rapidly globalizing world, with extensive changes in communication and mobility, volunteerism is thriving (Lyons & Wearing, 2008). As a result, scholars have begun to question the actual motives of volunteers and are attempting to build increasingly cohesive theories of volunteer work. Competing theories and methodological approaches include questions about the motivation to volunteer, as well as a critical examination of the term “egoism,” the opposite of altruism.

Egoism refers to an individual’s desire to engage in actions that will promote or help the self in some way. The idea that volunteers sacrifice their time for the benefit of others does not incorporate the possibility that people may volunteer out of a motivation to accrue personal benefits. Motivation that satisfies an internal need is typical of egoistic orientations. Egoistic orientations may include outward egoism, such as building a resumé; inward egoism, such as developing human relations skills; and experiential egoism, such as engaging in new and exciting endeavors (Hartenian & Lilly, 2009). Many of the studies examining volunteerism lack unifying positions on motivations for helping (Cnaan & Goldberg-Glen, 1991). Therefore, it is important to account for both egoistic and altruistic approaches to volunteering by analyzing the functions people hope to serve by volunteering.

The functional approach to volunteerism maintains that six different functions - values, understanding, enhancement, career, social, and protective - can be served by volunteering. These functions account for the “personal and social processes that initiate, direct, and sustain action” (Clary et al., 1998). Individuals can serve the values function by acting on important values such as humanitarianism; the understanding function by acquiring worldly knowledge and developing skills; the enhancement function by deepening psychological growth and development; the career function by obtaining career-related experience; the social function by strengthening social relationships; and the protective function by using volunteering to alleviate feelings such as guilt about the circumstances of others (Clary & Snyder, 1999). Each individual’s motivations tend to draw from all six functions, although the importance placed on each function varies between volunteers. Only the values function encompasses an entirely altruistic orientation, and even this function can simply be a “way of dramatizing that one is a good and decent person,” which would serve various social purposes (Wuthnow, 1994). Nonetheless, researchers can use the functions to evaluate the degree of altruism or egoism in a person’s volunteer motivation. Clary and Snyder’s (1999) work on functionalist approaches to motivation has prompted various applications to the understanding of volunteerism.

As purported by Clary (1999), these 6 constructs provide an empirical foundation to emphasize the active role of the participant in context. Such an approach allows researchers to tease apart the different agendas that influence the altruistic and egoistic orientations of self that lead individuals to volunteer. Although researchers have agreed that there exists a multifaceted interplay between altruism and egoism, there is no unanimous support for one single conceptual model.

Future Directions

As previously discussed, there are obvious differences in the structure of volunteerism in collectivistic and individualistic cultures. In terms of altruism and egoism, collectivistic cultures are more strongly tied to altruistic motivations to volunteer, whereas individualistic cultures tend to yield volunteers with alternative motivations (Grönlund et al., 2011). A collectivistic orientation also tends to increase the likelihood that a volunteer will develop a volunteer role identity, which motivates the individual to continue volunteer participation in order to maintain his or her new self-concept (Finkelstein, 2010). On the other hand, commitment levels of individualistic-oriented egoistic volunteers may not be as sustainable as those of altruistic volunteers (Hartenian & Lilly, 2009). Once an egoistic volunteer’s personal needs have been met, he or she may have little motivation to continue volunteer participation. Nonetheless, individualistic cultures also continue to enjoy relatively high rates of volunteerism.

According to the matching hypothesis, an individual will be motivated to engage in volunteer work if his or her motivations to serve matches the benefits afforded by a certain volunteering opportunity (Clary & Snyder, 1999). Using the 6 functions of volunteerism to evaluate the degree of altruism versus egoism in an individual’s motivation to volunteer may be useful for both collectivistic and individualistic cultures in creating sustainable volunteer models. Collectivistic cultures may benefit from appealing to altruistic, communally-oriented motives to volunteer, whereas individualistic cultures may attract higher rates of volunteerism if they emphasize, for example, the career-related functions that can be served through volunteerism.

Researchers can use the broad structural facets of collectivism and individualism as a lens through which to analyze nuanced cultural values such as altruism and egoism, in regard to their role in volunteer motivation. Understanding motivation on an individual level is an important tool for developing sustainable volunteer models and potentially enhancing the long-term commitment of volunteers. Research in this arena may allow for organizations to establish more nuanced training models for volunteers, which could in turn aid in volunteer initiation and placement. In addition, organizations may be able to increasingly match volunteer desires with opportunities offered, providing for a more fulfilling volunteer experience. Finally, the functional approach to volunteerism underscores that researchers should not view volunteer egoism and altruism as mutually exclusive concepts. Further research should seek to understand the intersection between egoism and altruism and how this can further highlight important and novel aspects of the volunteer experience, both on an individual and a cultural level.



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