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The motivation behind doing it for free

By Russ Grayson - posted Monday, 15 May 2006

Mirko Bagaric, writing in On Line Opinion on March 20 this year ("Volunteering for the Right Causes"), questions the motivations of volunteers for the recent Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. His view of their motivation reads as somewhat cynical, but perhaps he is right in asserting that self-interest is a motivation in volunteering for such high profile events rather than for some less-glamourous but more needy activity.

Reading his article, I could not help but contrast his ideas on the motivations of the Games volunteers with the type of volunteers I met when project manager for a small international development NGO.

Some of these were outstanding people, a credit not only to those that had mentored them but to the prestige of the country. One was a young woman recommended by the director of a training and agricultural seed organisation. I had been sceptical of her potential value as a volunteer in our field operations because we had quite a number of people knocking on our door to volunteer for placement. Most had no applicable experience and a somewhat rosy and unrealistic impression of conditions in developing countries.


But this very mature 24-year-old proved an asset to our work and it was her motivation that is the core of this story - she wanted to do something positive in life and saw volunteering as the key.

Volunteering for big events is about status

I believe that status has much to do with volunteering for big, high-profile events like the Commonwealth or Olympic Games. Volunteers gain esteem through the transference of the manufactured prestige around big events onto themselves. The association with a big, prestigious and hyped event raises their status in the eyes of friends and colleagues. Wearing the colourful uniform supplied to volunteers signifies their status among those who respect such things. Perhaps that explains why some Sydney Olympic volunteers were to be seen wearing their uniform shirts for some time after the games had finished.

Mirko alludes to the time poverty experienced by people in our society when he states that despite a chronic lack of time people still volunteer for epics like the Commonwealth Games, yet ignore the need for volunteers in less-prestigious social areas. Time poverty is a fact, something I've witnessed with friends trying to balance demanding jobs and young children while trying to pay their high Sydney mortgages and buy all the gadgets promised by consumer society. Most have no time for volunteering, but others do, and for many their volunteering demands a measure of personal reward in return. That comes through association with the perceived status of a big event.

Volunteerism in two varieties

Based on my experience with NGO volunteers and of others in community-based organisations in Australia, I see two drivers of volunteerism.

The first is the need felt by some mainly - but not exclusively - young people to “prove themselves”, either personally or to their peers. They find society to be too structured, too predictable and too safe to provide the level of challenge they seek. So they seek it elsewhere, especially in the less stable, less predictable societies found in developing countries. Most return with a more realistic worldview shaped by experience.

This, though, is not something confined to the young. Older people, many retired but others of pre-retirement age seeking the challenges they missed in their youth when they traded adventure to start family and career, are also found among those volunteering for service with aid and volunteer agencies, such as Australian Volunteers International. Perhaps, with the ageing of the Australian population, we should anticipate growth of this segment.


For some volunteers, personal psychology - the need to prove their own worth - plays less of a role. They genuinely want to do something positive and less self-centred with their lives. Disillusion with the work-a-day world also plays a role with this group, as does the lack of opportunity to find a role in the workforce that makes the contribution they seek. It is into this make-a-difference group that the young woman I mentioned at the start of this story fits.

Whatever their reasons, many volunteers on returning to Australia find that the society does not value what they have done and learned. Society values conventional livelihoods that follow predictable paths through education and career. The focus on working life and the need to continually seek employment by the nearly 30 or so per cent now in the casual labour sector discourages experiment with life and the seeking of broader experience through volunteerism. Australia is the lesser for this.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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