February 26, 2017

Thinking about Altruism

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 2:08 am by Sue Hine

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Over the holiday period I gobbled up a number of books, fiction and non-fiction. Well – what else do you do when it’s supposed to be summer and the wind and rain keep pouring into my city? And there was a fair bit of Googling as well, checking out New Year prognostications arising for the non-profit sector.  And trying to comprehend developments in “the new world order”, the term applied here to the reign of the new US President.

I sense a swell of concerns in the voluntary and community sector that have been simmering for some time: competition for funding; changes in government commitment to service provision, forcing organisations to close their doors; a fall of volunteer numbers and increases in paid staff; and in some quarters, a lack of public confidence in non-profit organisations. As always, there’s a refrain, singing for better recognition of volunteers, and for management of volunteers.

There are some other strands emerging too. They’ve also been around for a while, but I’m reluctantly taking some notice of the rise of ‘social enterprise’, a revival of ‘social investment’ (and what impact that might have on existing services), and a movement called ‘Effective Altruism’ promoting ‘how to help you help others, do work that matters, and make smarter choices about giving back’.

It’s champion is William MacAskill, and in his book Doing Good Better he offers a disarming self-help manual on how to decide best career choices when you want ‘to make a difference’, what cause to focus on, which charities offer the best outcomes. It’s hard to argue against his reasoning, except that it’s a long way from my basis for making choices when offering to volunteer or to respond to calls for $ donations.  His utilitarian approach has been well-critiqued, not least for ignoring the sticking plaster some charities put on injustices perpetrated by capitalism.

In simple terms, MacAskill advises that ‘the market will make it all work’.  Donors are investors seeking the best return for their money (ROI).  They might also get their name in lights as a worthy philanthropist.  What bothers me is the absence of any attempt by MacAskill to define ‘altruism’ beyond the basic ‘giving’. There is scant attention to other values and moral codes that can influence decisions, and he offers several examples of choices that have made little or no ‘difference’. The only mention of volunteering implies that giving money is a far better option than giving time:

As a volunteer, you’re often not trained in the area which you are helping, which means the benefit you provided might be limited. At the same time you’re often using up valuable management capacity. For that reason, volunteering can in fact be harmful to the charity you’re volunteering for. Anecdotally, we have heard from some non-profits that the main reason they use volunteers is because those volunteer subsequently donate back to the charity.

Hands up those who reckon volunteers are more trouble than they are worth!

There is more. Another book picked up by chance is by Nic Frances, a leading supporter of social enterprise. He outlines in The End of Charity how the divide between money-making business and doing-good charities doesn’t really make the world any better. This view is echoed by Don Pallotta who highlights business practice discrimination against non-profit organisations. Frances argues we need to stretch financial values to include social and environmental values, and for business to incorporate these elements into their operations – to take Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seriously. Well, yes, but is there any guarantee the outcome will not be like a corporate takeover of the non-profit sector? The ‘end of charity’, indeed.

Let’s go back to that word ‘altruism’, a loaded value-word, and values are notoriously debatable though highly significant in shaping thinking and behaviour. In simple terms ‘altruism’ represents a genuine concern for the well-being of others, and according to a cluster of researchers, altruism is also an integral part of human nature. Altruism can also bring benefits to ourselves – as volunteers well know and evidenced in research.

OK, science is divided between arguments on Darwinian competitiveness and the kind of mutualism (collaboration and coordination) that contributed to human evolution, but genuine altruism is right up front in Volunteering New Zealand’s definition of volunteering:

Work done of one’s own free will, unpaid, for the common good.

So I will not be jumping ship and buying into non-profit organisations becoming models of utilitarian business institutions. I will be thinking long and hard about what would be lost, like the passion for a cause, the spirit of community, and the rewards of volunteering. I shall be asking where the ‘common good’ has gone, and whether I still have free will.

Because we have been slow to appreciate the impact of change over the past thirty years. Contracts with government, rules and procedures for funding applications, formalised reporting and accounting for the spending of funds have upped the game of running a community organisation – and lifted standards of transparency and accountability. The shift from grass roots advocacy and action to formalised volunteering has introduced better practice in ‘using’ volunteers, aided through the professional development of volunteer management. In doing so, we have allowed a great divide to open between formal and informal volunteering.

According to altruists we have become corrupted by the modern money system, “an unnatural transactional mentality which establishes competitive relationships, overemphasises individualism, erodes society and fuels consumerism”. At the same time we protest loudly at the lack of recognition, of the true (non-monetary) value of volunteering and the work of community organisations.

While MacAskill and his colleagues preach ‘effective altruism’ I shall continue to beat the drum for the gift economy and relationships based on respect, empathy and cooperation. Without a strong volunteer presence, without thousands of organisations and people serving their communities through sport, arts and leisure pursuits, health and welfare support, emergency response, environment advocacy and all the stuff that goes on under the radar, the world would be a poor place to live.

That’s why we keep on volunteering, and doing the right thing in managing volunteers. Right? What actions would demonstrate our true worth?