Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Volunteering motivation: Altruism or egoism?

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Volunteering motivation: Altruism or egoism:
To what extent is volunteering motivated by altruism or egoism?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Volunteering is an activity in which a person may choose to participate in [missing something?][grammar?] which benefits other people who are outside of their immediate family (Cattan, Hogg & Hardill, 2011). This chapter provides insight into what volunteering is and the two recognised types of volunteering – formal and informal. Through the use of statistics, a snapchat of volunteering in Australia is given.

This chapter focuses primarily on whether individuals are motivated to engage in voluntary activities for altruistic or egoistic reasons. The chapter recognises and discusses six functions of volunteering which are believed to be commonly used when being motivated to volunteer. The chapter uses present research to analyse these functions in an attempt to determine to what extent is volunteering motivated by altruism or egoism.

What is Volunteering?[edit | edit source]

Charity work.JPG

Volunteering is defined as an activity in which participation is freely chosen, does not involve any financial remuneration, and which benefits other people outside of the individual and their immediate family (Cattan, Hogg & Hardill, 2011). Volunteers have become a major part of society and are included in activities such as fundraisers, community events, charities, campaigns and also emergency services, such as firefighters (Wallace & Baxter-Tomkins, 2006). It has been shown that emergency service volunteers have saved the [which?] government millions of dollars per annum, suggesting that volunteers have become an intricate and important part of our society (Wallace & Baxter-Tomkins, 2006). Minor (2002) acknowledges how dependent on volunteers some societies have become, and therefore all volunteers should be thanked for their effort and time which they have donated (Minor, 2002).

Types of Volunteering - Formal and Informal[edit | edit source]

There are two types of volunteering which people can become involved in – formal and informal.

Formal volunteering is defined as volunteering for an organisation or a campaign and is characterised as being structured and well organised (Parboteeah, Cullen & Lim, 2004). People who engage in formal volunteering are likely to be in agreement or passionate about either the reasoning behind the need for the particular organisation they are helping, or the message which is being portrayed by the organisation, such as awareness for a particular illness (Parboteeah, Cullen & Lim, 2004).

At the other end of the spectrum is informal volunteering. Informal volunteering is the most unrecognised form of volunteering and is otherwise known as ‘helping out’ friends and neighbours, such as helping a person carry their shopping bags (Wilson & Musick, 1997). Although it is unrecognised, informal volunteering is very common and socially acceptable as many people believe in the act of helping out their friends, and at times can feel as though they are obligated to help those around them (Janoff-Bulman & Leggatt, 2002).

Australian Volunteering Statistics[edit | edit source]

  • According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2015), volunteer rates were high for people aged 15-16 (42%), 35-55(39%), and 65-74(35%). This is shown in Graph 1.
Table 1: Participation in Voluntary Work by Age Group in 2014
  • In 2014, 34% of women volunteered compared to 29% of males (ABS, 2015).
  • In 2014, 63% of volunteers worked for one company only, 24% worked for two organisations, and 13% worked for three or more (ABS, 2015)
  • Sport and physical recreation were the most popular organisations which people volunteered for with 31% of volunteers, 24% volunteered for education and training services, 21% volunteered for welfare/ community groups, and 19% for religious groups (ABS, 2015).
  • In 2014, 31% of Australians over the age of 18 reported participating in volunteering roles and activities. This is a decrease from 2010, in which 36% of Australians had volunteered at some point (ABS, 2015).
  • There was also a decline in informal volunteering, such as assisting others outside of their household with 46% of people helping neighbours with jobs such as maintenance, unpaid childcare and gardening compared to 49% in 2010 (ABS, 2015).
  • In 2014, 53% of volunteers incurred expenses due to voluntary work. 41% stated that reimbursements were not available. The most common expenses were for travel (42%) and phone calls (32%) (ABS, 2015).
  • When asked about their overall life satisfaction, 82% of volunteers reported that they were delighted, pleased or mostly satisfied with their lives, compared to 75% of non-volunteers (ABS, 2011).

Introduction to the Altruism - Egoism Debate[edit | edit source]

Social scientists have been wondering why some people spend a considerable amount of time and effort helping others (Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin & Schroeder, 2005). Penner et al (2005) acknowledge that some people may be motivated to help others for altruistic reasons, whilst others may egoistically motivated.

Altruism is generally known to be behaviour that benefits others at a personal cost to the behaving individual (Kerr, Godfrey-Smith & Feldman, 2004). Therefore, some researchers believe that voluntary and helpful behaviours can truly be altruistic and motivated by a need to increase the well-being of others and positively contribute to the community. Volunteering is believed to be one of the most common altruistic behaviours as an individual can donate their time, skills, and money to help other people.

Egoism is the theory that people are motivated to behave in ways which serve their own self-interests and desires (Slote, 2013). From this perspective, it is suggested that seemingly altruistic acts, such as volunteering, are motivated by selfish reasons, such as helping a person in need in order to gain praise by those around them or to diminish negative feelings such as guilt.

The altruism – egoism debate on volunteering is fueled by reliable and valid evidence supporting both motivational reasons for volunteering. This research will be discussed and analysed in the sections below in an attempt to determine which motivational reason is the most likely cause of voluntary behaviour.

But firstly, take a short quiz to determine whether you tend to be more altruistic or egoistic. Please keep in mind that the results of this quiz may not be an accurate depiction of you. If you feel distressed by your result, please seek someone to talk to.

Helping the homeless.jpg

1 I am only willing to help someone if doing so will benefit me as well eg. Reward or he/she will ‘owe’ me one.


2 I regularly do favours for people without being asked.


3 I find it easy to put myself into another person’s shoes


4 When someone needs help, I make myself readily available.


5 I have helped someone to get on his/her good side.


6 When I do a favour for someone, I expect it to be returned


7 I believe in the motto “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine"


8 Helping others makes me feel happy.


How did you go? A score of 5 or more indicates that you are more likely to be altruistically motivated. A score of 3 or lower may suggest that you are more egoistically motivated. If you scored a 4, this might suggest that you obtain both altruistic and egoistic traits.

The Functional Approach to Volunteering[edit | edit source]

Clary et al (1998) hypothesised six functions potentially served by volunteerism, ultimately providing insight into the motivations behind voluntary behaviour. These functions are referred to as values, career, understanding, social, protective, and enhancement (Clary, 1998). These motivational functions will be assessed in regards to altruism and egoism, so that it can be determined whether voluntary behaviour is more likely to be altruistic or egoistic.

Value Function[edit | edit source]

Values are enduring beliefs held by an individual which can be used to motivate behaviour and encourage people to behave in ways which reflect these values (Briggs, Peterson & Gregory, 2010). Schwartz (1992) identified ten universal values which are motivationally distinct and are used to guide people’s behaviours. The value which is related to altruistic behaviour is benevolence, which is defined at preserving and enhancing the welfare of friends and family (Schwartz, 1992). The other value which can be related to the egoistic motivations behind volunteering is achievement. Achievement is linked to personal success through demonstrating competency in skills and activities. It is suggested that if an individual simultaneously pursues the values of benevolence and achievement, they will experience tension and psychological conflict (Schwartz, 1992). This suggests that a person cannot engage in voluntary behaviour and satisfy both benevolence and achievement values. Of the six motivational functions identified by Clary et al (1998), values have been found to be more predictive of specific behaviours, such as volunteering, than many of the others. Altruistic values are successfully served through voluntary behaviour, causing volunteering to be viewed as being primarily ‘other’ oriented (Briggs, Peterson & Gregory, 2010). Values are often developed through personal experiences, and some volunteers often chose to help after having a personal experience with an illness or social cause. This allows them to feel empathy towards others who are on a similar journey, which creates a need within the individual to help.

In the study by Briggs et al (2010), 86% of participants stated that they engaged in voluntary behaviour to help others, compared to 57% of participants who were interested in voluntary work to achieve personal goals. Although this is a significant difference, only 60% of the study’s participants agreed that they engaged in volunteering for altruistic reasons compared to 67% of participants stating that they were motivated to volunteer to have an impact on people and events (Briggs, Peterson & Gregory, 2010). These results demonstrate that although the majority of participants were motivated to volunteer to help other people, only 60% of participants would volunteer at an expense to themselves. Additionally, although a significant amount of participants agreed with statements such as ‘I am concerned about those less fortunate than myself’, in which 76% of participants agreed with, there were higher levels of agreement for achievement statements such as ‘volunteering will help me succeed in my chosen profession’ in which 87% of participants agreed with (Briggs, Peterson & Gregory, 2010). This is consistent with the findings from Brayley et al (2014) in which a sample of retired individuals strongly agreed with value statements, such as ‘I feel compassion towards those in need’, in which 90% of participants agreed with, and ‘I feel it is important to help others’ which 86% of participants agreed with. This provides strong evidence that values do have a strong motivational role in volunteering behaviour. However, despite this result, participants were also strongly in agreement of other functional statements, such as ‘my friends volunteer’ in which 81% of participants agreed with (Brayley et al, 2014). These results demonstrate that there is an overlap in beliefs and values regarding volunteering, and that the majority of people do believe and care for the people that they are helping when they are engaging in voluntary behaviour, however their volunteering simultaneously continues to benefit them in some way.

Career Function[edit | edit source]


It is suggested that individual’s may participate in volunteer work in order to gain experience and learn skills which may benefit their career (Briggs, Peterson & Gregory, 2010). This idea is confirmed by Briggs et al (2010) who demonstrated that over 80% of participants agreed with statements which suggested that they participated in voluntary work in order to learn skills, explore career options, succeed in their chosen profession and to look good on their resume.

The results of the study by Ho et al (2012) suggested that young adults are more likely to participate in volunteering in order to gain work experience compared to older adults, who may be more concerned with fulfilling other motives, such as values. In a study by college students who were participated in volunteer work, 26.5% of participants stated that they engaged in this behaviour in order to help their career (Moore, Warta & Erichsen, 2014). This supports the results from the study by Ho et al (2012) who suggested that a significant amount of young adults may be motivated to volunteer by their career goals.

Career motives to engage in voluntary work can be seen as egoistic. This is due to people engaging in these activities in order to benefit themselves and to gain leverage within their area of expertise.

Understanding Function[edit | edit source]

Understanding motives are viewed as motivations to learn new skills and to gain knowledge and insight into new and different experiences in order to achieve personal growth (Clary, 1998). This motivational function suggests that individuals are interested in learning more about the world and exercising skills which are often unused and forgotten. Moore et al (2014) that in their participant sample of college students, the understanding motive was the second most common motivational function, after values, with 27.9% of participants agreeing that they engaged in volunteering in order to achieve a greater understanding. This result may not be surprising, as all students were young adults, and may have been interesting experiencing what life is like outside of school.

Rehberg (2005) provides a lot of evidence of the understanding motive, suggesting that is a common and likely cause for volunteer work. The study demonstrated how people who had mostly been constricted within their own community were enthusiastic about learning about different cultures, and learning about their own selves within a different environmental setting (Rehberg, 2005). This study also highlights the need and high importance many people place on doing something brand new and out of the ordinary. The understanding function of motivation is based primarily around the self, as concerns are focused on experiencing and learning new things in order to achieve personal growth. Therefore, understanding is an egoistic motivation for volunteer work.

Social Function[edit | edit source]

Making friends in Africa 140614-F-RN211-394

The social function of volunteering refers to individual’s interest in meeting new people, making friends and gaining opportunities to spend time with these friends (Clary, 1998). This explanation of the social function suggests that it is an egoistic motivation for volunteering due to the focus on achieving social gains. Cornelius et al (2013) discovered that 68% of the study’s participants chose to volunteer due to the desire to make and spend time with friends. This percentage is higher than the results retrieved by Moore et al (2014), in which only 18.8% of participants stated the social needs motivated them to volunteer. The significant difference between these two results may be due to the participants in the study by Cornelius et al (2013) were enabled to provide more than one reason why they chose to volunteer, causing some motivational reasons to be overlapped.

Finkelstein and Brannick (2007) also suggest that engaging in volunteering activities can cause this behaviour to become a part of the individual’s social role identity. A social role identity is said to emerge from ongoing social interactions and social expectations from others (Finkelstein & Brannick, 2007). Therefore, the more others associate a person with a particular role, the more the role becomes an important part of the self-concept. Social identities motivate people to behave in ways which are consistent with the identity so as to avoid experiencing cognitive dissonance and other negative psychological emotions which can be caused by behaving on contrasting ways to their role identity (Finkelstein & Brannick, 2007). This suggests that if a person engages in volunteering in order to achieve consistency within their social identities, than volunteering has become an egoistic motivation.

Protective Function[edit | edit source]

The protective function of volunteering refers to protecting one’s ego from negative feelings (Clary, 1998). For example, a person may choose to volunteer their time in an attempt to alleviate feelings of guilt surrounding the circumstances of others or escape from their own personal problems. Therefore, this function suggests that people choose to volunteer in order to avoid experiencing negative feelings about not helping later on. In the study conducted by Moore (2014), the protective function was shown to be the least likely reason to participate in volunteering, with 18.4% of participants admitting they volunteered for this reason. This results is supported by Cornelius et al (2013), in which 60% of participants also reported volunteering for this reason, which was also the lowest percentage score of all six functions.

Research suggests that volunteering for protective reasons allows people to experience greater life satisfaction and psychological well-being (Ho, You & Fung, 2012; Veerasamy, Sambasivan & Kumar, 2014). Ho et al (2012) discovered that protective motives were more likely to be used by younger adults rather than older adults. It was suggested that protective motives were positively related to psychological well-being due to thoughts and beliefs that by helping someone in need may result in good luck and blessings. This suggests that young adults are more likely to use external strategies, such as volunteering to escape from their troubles and achieve positive emotions (Ho, You and Fung, 2012). It is also suggested that protective motives are more likely to result in psychological well-being when they volunteer for tasks which are relevant to themselves, such as healthcare (Veerasamy, Sambasivan & Kumar, 2014). The protective function of volunteering is egoistic, as it focuses on allowing the individual to escape from their own negative psychological experiences.

Enhancement Function[edit | edit source]

The enhancement function focuses allowing people to grow and develop psychologically through participating in volunteering activities, which allows them to maintain or enhance their self-esteem and self-worth (Clary, 1998). Rehberg (2005) suggests that the enhancement motive is concerned about gaining experience and advancing oneself. Participants in the study stated that through volunteering, they expected to become more mature and self-confident, along with gain more life satisfaction (Rehberg, 2005). Therefore, the enhancement function is based on individuals receiving positive internal feedback, such as feeling mature and competent, and external feedback, such as receiving praise from others, which creates positive benefits for one’s ego.

Dunn et al (2015) identified the enhancement function to be the most likely cause of volunteering behaviour, in which 95% of participants volunteered as a way to receive recognition and praise. This result is also supported by Brayley et al (2014) in which 87% of participants agreed that volunteering would make them feel better about themselves and 75% stated that volunteering would increase their self-esteem. 23.6% of participants in the study by Moore et al (2014) also reported motivation by enhancement motives. Although these results provide strong evidence for the enhancement function, Francis (2011) found that the enhancement function had no significant relationship with volunteering within a sample of university students, suggesting that it is not a good predictor of volunteering behaviour. However, the study did find significant positive correlations between volunteering and the social and understanding functions (Francis, 2011). The enhancement function can be said to be closely linked with both of these functions, due to spending time with friends as a part of the social function, can also contribute to a sense of competency and positive internal rewards, which is an important part of the enhancement function.

The enhancement function is one of the most egoistic functions of this motivational approach to volunteering. The primary focus of this approach is to allow the individual to feel good about themselves and enhance their self-esteem.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Clary et al (1998) hypothesised a theory of six functions of volunteering, which provides insight into different motivations in which an individual might use to engage in voluntary behaviour. These functions, as outlined above, are values, career, understanding, social, protective, and enhancement. The aim of this chapter was to gain insight into these six functions, in order to determine to what extent volunteering is motivated by altruism and egoism. Based on current research, it can be said that the value function is the most altruistic of all the six functions. Values are based on people’s beliefs, and many people feel motivated to volunteer because they believe it is the right thing to do to help someone in need. Although many people stated that they engaged in volunteering to help others in need, there is strong evidence suggesting that the other functions also play an integral role in engaging in voluntary activities. As shown above, the other five functions of volunteering displayed strong evidence of egoistic motivations. This is due to all the functions allowing the individual to receive or achieve positive outcomes from performing voluntary behaviours, such as developing a career, spending time with friends, and enhancing their self-esteem. Therefore, it can be concluded that although volunteering may contain aspects of altruism, egoism and individual’s self-interests are more likely to motivate volunteering.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2011). Voluntary Work, Australia, 2010. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2015). General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia, 2014. Retrieved from

Brayley, N. Obst, P. White, K.M. Lewis, I.M. Warburton, J. Spencer, N.M. (2014). Exploring the Validity and Predictive Power of an Extended Volunteer Functions Inventory within the Context of Episodic Skilled Volunteering Retirees. Journal of Community Psychology, 42. 1-18. DOI: 10.1002/jcop.21583

Briggs, E. Peterson, M. Gregory, G. (2010). Toward a Better Understanding of Volunteering for Nonprofit Organizations: Explaining Volunteers’ Pro-Social Attitudes. Journal of Macromarketing, 30. 61-76. DOI: 0.1177/0276146709352220

Cattan, M. Hogg, E. Hardill, I. (2011). Improving Quality of Life in Ageing Populations: What Can Volunteering Do?. Maturitas, 70(4). 328-332. DOI: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.08.010

Clary, E.G. Snyder, M. Ridge, R.D. Copeland, J. Stukas, A.A. Haugen, J. Miene, P. (1998). Understanding and Assessing the Motivations of Volunteers: A Functional Approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6). 1516-1530. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.74.6.1516

Cornelius, I. Van Hiel, A. De Cremer, D. (2013). Volunteer Work in Youth Organisations: Predicting Distinct Aspects of Volunteering Behaviour from Self-and-Other-Oriented Motives. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43. 456-466. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2013.01029.x

Dunn, J. Chambers, S.K. Hyde, M.K. (2015). Systematic Review of Motives for Episodic Volunteering. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27. 425-464. DOI: 10.1007/s11266-015-9548-4

Finkelstein, M.A. Brannick, M.T. (2007). Applying Theories of Institutional Helping to Informal Volunteering: Motives, Role Identity, and Prosocial Personality. Social Behaviour and Personality, 35. 101-114. DOI: 10.2224/sbp.2007.35.1.101

Ho, Y.W. You, J. Fung, H.H. (2012). The Moderating Role of Age in the Relationship Between Volunteering Motives and Well-Being. European Journal of Ageing, 9(4). 319-327. DOI: 10.1007/s10433-012-0245-5

Janoff-Bulman, R. Leggatt, H.K. (2002). Culture and Social Obligation: When ‘Shoulds’ are Perceived as ‘Wants’. Journal of Research in Personality, 36(3). 260-270. DOI: 10.1006/jrpe.2001.2345

Kerr, B. Godfrey-Smith, P. Feldman, M.W. (2004). What is Altruism?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19(3). 135-140. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2003.10.004

Minor, R.D. (2002). Thinking about Things not Thought of: Why it is Important to Volunteer and Support Those Who Do. The Journal of the American College of Dentists, 69(4). Retrieved from

Moore, E.W. Warta, S. Erichsen, K. (2014). College Students’ Volunteering: Factors Relating to Current Volunteering, Volunteer Settings, and Motives for Volunteering. College Student Journal, 48(3). 386-397. Retrieved from

Parboteeah, K.P. Cullen, J.B. Lim, L. (2004). Formal Volunteering: A Cross-National Test. Journal of World Business, 39(4). 431-441. DOI: 10.1016/j.jwb.2004.08.007

Penner, L.A. Dovidio, J.F. Piliavin, J.A. Schroeder, D.A. (2005). Prosocial Behavior: Multilevel Perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology, 56. 365-391. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070141

Rehberg, W. (2005). Altruistic Individualists: Motivations for International Volunteering Among Young Adults in Switzerland. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 16(2). 109-122. DOI: 10.1007/s11266-005-5693-5

Schwartz, S.H. (1992). Universals in the Content and Structure of Values: Theoretical Advances and Empirical Tests in 20 Countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 25. 1-65. DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60281-6

Slote, M. (2013). Egoism and Emotion. Philosophia, 41(2). 313-335. DOI: 10.1007/s11406-013-9434-5

Veerasamy, C. Sambasivan, M. Kumar, N. (2014). Life Satisfaction Among Healthcare Volunteers in Malaysia: Role of Personality Factors, Volunteering Motives, and Spiritual Capital. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 26(2). 531-552. DOI: 10.1007/s11266-014-9437-2

Wallace, M. Baxter-Tomkins, T. (2006). Emergency Service Volunteers: What do we Really Know About Them?. Australian Journal on Volunteering, 11(2). Retrieved from;dn=322964698031546;res=IELHSS

Wilson, J. Musick, M (1997). Who Cares? Toward and Integrated Theory of Volunteer Work. American Sociological Review, 62(5). 694-713. Retrieved from