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Why Do We Like to Volunteer?

This article references Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. I'm also indebted to Shani Lavie's extensive experience.
You can find more articles based on this book at the end, and another article about volunteering (from a different perspective).

At one of the NGOs I am a member of, there is a mentoring program. The graduates mentor younger peers. The mentoring last for six months, for a few dozen participants.

The mentoring is voluntarily, and each year we have more mentors than we require. The organization has other social activities, involving young adults who live in Israel's periphery, and we don't lack volunteers.

We also operate two programs, titled "To Dare", and "To Dare Together", joined under the brand "Taking Direction" and they now operate in nine cities, with both members and non-members volunteering.

What drives people to volunteer? What is the secret?

And who are the beneficiaries?

I will address that later on.

Social Norms and Market Norms

Dan Ariely writes in his book Predictably Irrational that we live in two worlds: one characterized by social exchanges and the other characterized by market exchanges. One example of social exchange will be friendly requests, favors people ask each other.

The other world, controlled by market norms is very different. It's built on clear Give-and-Take relationships: salaries, pricings, rent, interest, cost and benefit. Business relationships aren’t necessarily bad, or cruel, in fact they allow for many good things, such as independence, ingenuity and individualism. But they always have a clear demand for a more or less identical benefit for both parties, and payments according to known schedules. In a world controlled by market exchanges you get what you paid for.

Ariely presents an experiment done with Prof. James Hyman. They assigned the same task to three groups. Participants in the first group received five dollars when they entered the experiment. Participants in the second group received half a dollar upon entering the experiment. The participants in the third group did not receive any money and the experiment was presented to them as a favor.

Participants in the first group (who received five dollars) achieved about 50 percent more than participants in the second group (who received only half a dollar). This result is in line with market norms. However the participants in the third group (who did not receive money but did this as a favor) achieved the most. The experiment is described in Predictably Irrational.

Ariely concludes that the participants made the most effort under social norms that do not pay them money and less under market norms that allowed them to earn money - there is ample evidence that people work more for a cause than for cash”.

And What Does this Has to Do With Volunteering?

Ariely describes an example where the American Pensioners' Association approached lawyers and asked them if they would agree to provide a cheaper service to pensioners in need, at a cost of about 30$ an hour. The lawyers refused. When they were asked if they would agree to provide a free service to, the vast majority responded positively.

What's going on here? How is it possible that a zero-dollar payment is more attractive than a thirty-dollar payment? When the money was mentioned the lawyers acted in market norms and came to the conclusion that the offer wasn't good enough compared to their regular salary. But when no money was mentioned, they activated social norms and agreed to do voluntary action.

Ariely gives more examples, but I believe this will do.

May We Always Be on the Giving Side

Volunteering is part of social norms and also has non-monetary benefits.

As the saying goes: may we always be on the giving side. Its simple meaning is that we will be among those who can give and do not need to receive.

But anyone can give something. Suppose the workplace organizes volunteering in a youth club. There are those who can do homework with the kids and there are those who can renovate and paint the place. Everyone can find their place.

Volunteering places you among the ranks of those who can give. Even when, at the same time, you enjoy receiving from other volunteers.

In fact, everyone needs occasional favors from friends, and anyone can also give to others.

More Things We Receive from Volunteering

  • Volunteering allows us to work for an important cause and gives us meaning.
  • Thanks to volunteering we get to know new people and new areas of interest.
    Thanks to my volunteering in the mentoring project, which I described above, I met Anat Milner Cohen, I studied coaching and acquired a new field of interest, skill and profession. I deepend my professionalism.
  • Volunteering allows us to get to know new worlds and reach places we could not have reached in any other way.
    For many years I have been one of the thousands of volunteers to judge in the Beautiful Industry Competition in Beautiful Israel. A competition organized by the Council for a Beautiful Israel.
    Thanks to my volunteering there I got to know up close and in-depth dozens of industrial companies, which I had no other chance of getting to know. I learned a lot from the companies I judged.

Volunteering Organized by Companies

Shani Lavie, director of the "Rotem for the Community" and the social enterprise SocialEyes, which deals with volunteering projects by business companies. As part of these projects, diverse institutions working with underprivileged populations are being redesigned.

Shani says that employees volunteering is an agenda that almost every commercial company today integrates at some frequency in the organization, and this is also in light of the demand coming from the employees themselves, Generation Y and Z employees, who are looking for additional meaning in their daily work.

There are companies that volunteer once a year and there are companies that go out on volunteering projects several times a week – It usually depends on the size of the organization and its community relations agenda.

Volunteering creates in the employees a sense of belonging to the organization and this positively affects the level of motivation of the employees and their commitment to the organization, and makes them more productive. So, beyond the contribution to the community and underprivileged populations, the organization also gets better and more satisfied employees who help it develop.

In many cases, volunteering is such an empowering and fulfilling experience that various employees begin volunteering in their spare time, with and without any connection to volunteering at work.

In the context of motivation, Professor Ariely writes that money is often the most expensive way to instill motivation in people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective".

The Scope of Volunteering in Israel

A survey conducted towards the end of 2021 by The Institute for the Study of Civil Society and Philanthropy in Israel found that 28% of Israelis over the age of 18 volunteer with some frequency.

Of these, 97.4% indicated high or medium satisfaction.

Relatively, the volunteering rate is not high, but those who volunteer are satisfied with the experience.

An article published in Globes in August 2019 states that seven years earlier, in 2014, the volunteering rate was lower - just a little over 20%.

The growth in the rate of volunteering is probably due to the maturation of generations Y and Z and the positive change that has taken place in society following the pandemic.

Summary and Recommendations

I asked in the opening why we like to volunteer.

Volunteering takes us from the routine place where we are on a daily basis, to other places.

It places you among the ranks of those who can give, For we not only carry out instructions, but prove to ourselves that we, too, can give to others. We are worthy, valuable.

We always volunteer for an important cause that gives us meaning.

During volunteering we meet new people and get to know new areas of interest.

Even when volunteering is with our company, with people from within the company, we have the opportunity to get to know the people we work with better.

Volunteering allows us to visit mew places. Be someone else for a short time.

In a survey conducted towards the end of 2021 and presented above, 97% of volunteers were satisfied at a high or medium level.

Personally, when I look back, I do not remember even one time that I did not finish a volunteering project or event and was not extremely empowered.

Volunteering, as Dan Ariely shows in his books through experiments he has conducted and experiments conducted by others, is part of our social norms. Unlike market norms, according to which every action is rewarded with money.

It is not possible to mix the two worlds.

Either we operate according to social norms, for example volunteering - or we operate according to market norms, for example doing business.

Link to other articles that dealt with volunteering or other activities motivated by social norms

Link to other articles based on the book Predictably Irrational

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