We think of volunteering for a good cause as being desirable. We also find that people who volunteer do so consistently, and those who don’t are just as consistent. However, there never seems to be enough volunteers. In this piece, Paul Baker and Chris Dawson of the University of Bath School of Management explain more about their current research (with David Dowell of the University of St Andrews), which finds that there is an opportunity to turn a non-volunteer into a persistent volunteer.
Conventional wisdom tells us that volunteering activity is ‘good’ for society. When we hear of someone volunteering for a charity, we immediately recognise it as a desirable pro-social behaviour. But, there is more truth to this than just a perception. There are significant government initiatives designed to increase volunteering activity such as the National Citizen Service in the UK and Service – Learning in the US. Our own governments are interested in us volunteering more.
Alongside a motivation to increase volunteering activity, we also observe significant persistence in volunteering (in) activity. Those who volunteered yesterday are much more likely to volunteer today, and similarly for those who didn’t’…they don’t!
What makes people volunteer?
What became of interest to us as researchers are the underlying reason or reasons for that persistence and whether it could provide a mechanism to turn a non-volunteer today into a volunteer tomorrow. If the observed persistence in pro-social behaviour (volunteering) is due to some underlying inherent characteristic(s) of the individual, then there is little that can be said or done to change that person’s interest in volunteering. If there is something in a person’s makeup that simply causes them to be predisposed to volunteer (or not), then it is not obvious how that can be influenced to change. However, if the act of volunteering itself leads to more volunteering in the future, then that creates a policy opportunity. Where a government initiative encourages volunteering today, this can lead to ongoing volunteering behaviour and therefore, act as an investment in future volunteering activity.
The idea itself that current pro-social behaviour can lead to pro-social behaviour in the future is not new. The desire to build social capital through volunteering activity is quite intuitive. By volunteering, a person can build and develop social ties, connections and a network. Alternatively, we can also think of the causal relationship of volunteering across time as being driven by a “warm glow” or “helper’s high” that one enjoys from volunteering. The person who volunteers for the first time enjoys an increase in personal utility from the action and this leads the person to want to do more of it in the future. These ideas and more have been well explored across work economics, psychology and sociology. However, what has been missing from this literature is an actual estimation of just how important the causal link of past volunteering is on future volunteering. And it is this latter idea that we analyse in our recent work.
Volunteering today leads to volunteering tomorrow
Using a large sample of household data and after accounting for known socio-demographic and socio-economic influences on volunteering behaviour, we find that there is an important temporal causal relationship to volunteering. Someone who volunteers today is 2.5 times more likely to volunteer in the future than someone who doesn’t volunteer today. Volunteering leads to more volunteering. We do also find that someone’s underlying inherent characteristics are important to their ongoing propensity to volunteer, but that the causal link of volunteering itself is important as it accounts for approximately 1/3 of the observed persistence in a person’s volunteering behaviour.
These findings are important as they speak to a mechanism that government and charitable organisations themselves can use to increase people’s engagement with volunteering. Initiatives or campaigns that engage new volunteers today will not only increase volunteering immediately but also into the future. Of course, the challenge then becomes how to encourage people into volunteering today and at what cost. It’s not clear why volunteering leads to more volunteering – whether it be for social capital or “warm glow” – however, what is important is that such a causal link is indeed evident and is an important predictor of behaviour.
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