Is Volunteering an Altruistic Act?
As one of the volunteer coordinators for Unity Hospice, I watched a TED talk on why some people are more altruistic than others. Why some people do selfless things. Psychologist Abigail Marsh defines altruism as, “a voluntary, costly behavior motivated by the desire to help another individual; a selfless act only to benefit someone else.”
It stands to reason that, given my job, I would seek out information on what makes altruistic people tick. Why they do what they do. However, after listening to this TED talk, I would argue that Unity volunteers would say that they are not altruistic. Why would I say this? Why educate you on altruism and then make a case against it? It’s the part of the definition that states, “only to benefit someone else.” The patients on our program truly do benefit from the functions our volunteers perform whether directly or indirectly, but the volunteers also benefit.
So, I put the question to you: Is volunteering an altruistic act? This is a question I’ve asked myself time and time again. You see, when I was in college, I had to come up with a personal mission statement to put on my resume. This statement also served to remind me what I wanted to do with my life. For example, if my mission statement said I wanted to make a million dollars by the time I was thirty, and I found myself applying for a job at McDonalds…I either needed to re-evaluate my statement, or apply somewhere else.
Now, my actual mission statement was nothing like the example above. I wrote that I wanted to positively impact the community in which I live. Simple. To-the-point. “Positively impact.” But that term is open to interpretation. I could go around a city park for one day and clean up garbage, and I will have accomplished my mission. On paper, sure. I could say that. I could believe that. But that wasn’t enough for me. The concept of altruism kept rolling around in my head. What would it take for me to feel altruistic; to feel like I was living my mission statement?
I joined a women’s service league that regularly held fundraisers for local causes. Not enough. My husband and I became a Big Couple with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Wisconsin. Not enough. I took a job as Coordinator of Children’s Ministries at a local church. Not enough. My husband and I became licensed foster parents. In the over three years we’ve been licensed, we’ve housed seven children. One for less than 24 hours. Two for more than two years and counting. Not enough. I sought out this job as a Volunteer Coordinator with Unity Hospice. A job I’ve always wanted. A job I am proud to have. Still, not enough.
I have a lot of skin in the game to make a case for altruism. My altruism; the altruism of Unity’s volunteers. And yet, I don’t feel I fit the bill. Why? Because I get something back. While these acts start out selflessly, living them out changes everything.
From the women’s service league, I got a great group of like-minded friends. From being a Big Couple, I got the opportunity to learn about other cultures. From being a Coordinator of Children’s Ministries, I got a deeper understanding of my faith. From being a foster parent, I learned that my capacities to love and hurt have no limits, and that there are no lengths to which I won’t go to make sure children are loved and safe. I am rewarded daily by the smiles and hugs from my little foster daughters. I get something back. From my work as a Volunteer Coordinator, I’ve met some wonderful, altruistic people who are giving of their time and energy to walk with people on their final journey, and inspire me to do more.
But like me, these volunteers don’t consider themselves altruistic. They are humble. They see it as work that must be done. They are fulfilled by the work and they enjoy knowing that they’ve made a difference. They’ve learned life lessons from people who are reflecting back on their own lives and sharing their final wisdom. They’ve laughed with patients, they’ve cried with caregivers, they work through the emotional toll it can take to go on this journey with patients and their families. And they do it time and time again.
Every single time I ask the volunteers why they do it, they respond with some version of “I get back more than I give.” Do I think they’re altruistic? Yes. But they’ll never agree that they are, and that is one of the things I love most about my job. Walking with humble people as they “just do what needs to be done.”
This blog post was shared by Leah Seibel, a Volunteer Coordinator at Unity Hospice.
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