The Selfish Side of Serving

Guest post by Brad Jamison, Good Citizen

Brad Jamison, founder of Good Citizen, talks about why we really volunteerLooking to get more volunteers? Simple, tell them what’s in it for them. Alright, it’s not quite that simple, but extolling the personal benefits of volunteering might in fact help get them in the door.

In my experience, which includes thirty-two years of serving next to thousands of other volunteers, most people answer the question “why do you volunteer?” with either, “It’s the right thing to do” or “I want to give back.” Now, I’m not saying I don’t believe these answers, but since I personally serve because of what I get out of it, I have my doubts about these altruistic-sounding answers. So, after a good amount of digging, not to mention some self-reflection, I have discovered why we serve – it’s because we are selfish!

We like to do things that feel good and have personal benefits; it’s part of being human. It’s why we buy certain things, why we take up hobbies, why we pursue love, why we do almost everything.

It’s also why marketers spend so much time and money telling us repeatedly how their products will make every aspect of our lives better. This human desire to know “what’s in it for me” drives our global economy. So, why not use it to sell service too?

Day 6 of Brad's 30 Days of Service: San Gabriel Valley Habitat for Humanity
Day 6 of Brad’s 30 Days of Service: San Gabriel Valley Habitat for Humanity

Moving forward, when you are looking to recruit more volunteers, try incorporating the answers to “what’s in it for me.” Talk about the benefits of service, which include meeting new people, having fun, learning new skills, feeling joy, strengthening relationships, building self-esteem, enhancing one’s resume and so much more. Plus, talk about any specific benefits your organization offers, from free food and t-shirts to gift cards and discounts.

If you aren’t exactly sure what the personal benefits of serving your organization are, talk to your current volunteers. But, remember, they are likely to give you relatively generic answers to avoid looking selfish. So, dig a little deeper. Give them permission to sound selfish – let them know you aren’t going to judge them.

I know the mere concept of marketing the personal benefits of service is enough to make many folks in the nonprofit world uncomfortable. But give it a try and see how it goes. And, while you’re at it, get honest with yourself and figure out just why YOU serve and then talk about it.

Lastly, remember this…at the end of the day it doesn’t matter so much what motivated your volunteers to help, what’s important is that they showed up and made a difference. It’s the difference they made that will change the world.

Brad Jamison is a pro-social marketing expert, writer, producer, service advocate and founder of Good Citizen. A volunteer since he was 8, last year Brad conducted Thirty Days of Service – 30 service projects with 30 organizations in 30 consecutive days.