2015 / 12 November

The selfish value of volunteering

Two weeks ago Global Ideas Forum wrapped up for 2015. I say wrapped up, in the sense that the public event came to a close. The reality is that an event that lasts only a weekend still takes a full twelve months to plan, execute and analyse afterwards. It’s an incredible amount of work, particularly for a group who all volunteer their time and have to fit everything around their real life. For me, it was the fifth or sixth big event I have helped run and probably my proudest to date.

As we packed down and headed off to have some celebratory drinks, I took the time to look at the people involved in the team and wondered what it was that spurred them to invest so much time in something that carried no financial reward. What was it that drove and inspired them to become part of such an event, and despite any issues, agree to do it all again next year?

I quizzed some of the team about why they chose to volunteer their time, and the responses were varied:

“Interacting with like-minded, driven and highly skilled people is extremely motivating and educational.”


“I put myself out of my comfort zone, and I’m really happy about it.”


“Selfishly, I do it for the experience and the gratification of growing a community of global health zealots through media communications.”

The last response is the most intriguing to me. Ask most people about whether they viewed volunteering as a selfish endeavour and they would probably laugh at you. Volunteering doesn’t strictly adhere to the definition, “chiefly for one’s own personal profit or pleasure”, however it would be remiss not to acknowledge some level of truth in it.

For most of us, there must be a level of selfishness to volunteer. There needs to be some kind of return for the time spent — whether it’s networking, fulfillment, free tickets to events or praise and acknowledgement. There’s a driver in all of us that can rationalise the decision to invest time and energy for often no overt reward.

Volunteering interests me because it’s something I’ve always found myself doing. I’ve never considered it as a traditionally selfish pursuit, but if I consider it through the above lens, I have to admit a lot of it is for my own personal gain. I do it to network, I do it to have a professional and personal point of difference, I do it to have my moment in the spotlight and I can use it as a trialing ground for some of the ideas I wouldn’t be able to implement in a paid position. It’s easy enough for me to say “it’s the right thing to do”, but I have to recognise that I do it to help me better understand my sense of purpose and discover things I’m truly passionate about.

Perhaps ‘selfish’ is the wrong word given its negative connotations; perhaps ‘self-interest’ is more appropriate, but either way I think it’s important to acknowledge that none of us are truly altruistic, we all seek some reward for our actions.

With this in mind, it brings the question about the real value of volunteering into focus. Since the pursuit does not include financial reward, the motivations are internal and, in my view, much more powerful.

Volunteer because you want to meet new people, volunteer because you’re missing something in your day to day life, volunteer to benefit your career prospects, volunteer because you want to contribute to a cause. Whatever the reason, spend some time doing something motivated by things other than money. And if you’re open and honest about your intentions, it’s likely you’ll find something that meets (and hopefully exceeds) those objectives.

Find something that isn’t a once off, for the world’s least important pat on the back. Find something you can spend 12 months on and become immersed in. If you can find the thing that drives you and truly resonates with you, the rewards are far greater than any old pay cheque.

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