A frequent expectation, amongst those enthusiastic both about apps and about doing good, is that at some point we’ll work out a realistic and fun way to ‘game’ volunteering. At which point, it willl take off like farmville and we’ll have a thriving economy of people doing good and earning redeemable points.
This is reflected in some of the applications to Nesta’s ‘giving innovation fund’ (worth a browse through, by the way, each applicant had to submit a short video as part of the application, a great move that really opens the ideas up for people to see and unveils a whole ecosystem of projects).
But back to the point at hand. I’m troubled by this particular recurrent idea.
If we could activate these motivations, could harness powerful drivers of self-interest and game-mastery activity for volunteering, why would we not?
Why we should tread carefully
There are two problematic and contrasting traits which society commonly exhibits. The nature, motivations and patterns of what we spend our time doing are in some contexts dysfunctionally separated (the strict segregation of our lives and workplaces into producing, consuming, and donating), and in some places dysfunctionally merged (the common unification of effects into a single metric, most noticeably the bottom line). They are both to do we how we chop up and conceive life, and how we understand what we do and why we do it.*
So here’s a provocation: Gaming volunteering, if it is successful as a driving motivation for volunteering (a big if) is guilty of both of these crimes.
- It firstly introduces a demand that ‘volunteering time’ is deliniated and accounted for, rather than desiring it to exist as a pervasive, unaccounted social generosity.
- It secondly tries to measure all volunteering against a single metric of points, with the consequence that we will not manage to measure and value what matters. The more this metric becomes a serious factor in volunteering (how many points are gained from what), the more volunteering will suffer as a result.
Finally, suppose there are resolutions to these serious problems. Say we have an accurate points-based system that reflects the value of the work undertaken; we’ve delineated what counts as volunteering in simple and strict ways; we’ve got a thriving community doing good and collecting vouchers – this is the point we start running up against an even bigger problem.
This is one helpfully researched and documented by a joint programme of the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF-Uk, who have recently conducted research into the values we hold and how they interact; research of vital importance to social and third-sector organisations seeking to motivate altruistic behaviour.
Asking people to volunteer because there’s something in it for them actively decreases their inclination to be generous in normal life, even if it increase specific volunteering in the short term. Read the report to find out more – but in essence, the values we hold compete with each other for attention, and unsuprisingly the competitive, gaming, status, gaining-for-oneself value set is firmly opposed to the generousity, helping out, giving freely of your time value set. Activating one has knock-on effects for the other – appealing to our competitiveness decreases our generousity and vice versa.
A corrosive delusion
We are at the moment living with a reinvigorated social belief, born out of our necessity to believe that corporations will not destroy the world: that we can and must align the poles of self-interest and common interest. That to make money do good we must be able to make money out of doing good, and that to deny this is to fail to acknowledge the primary power of self-interest as a driver of individual and group action, and so abandon the world to the wolves in a Canute-like defiance of market forces.
This is a myth that is destructive to our ability to think outside of these parameters and act in ways oppositional to our competitive interest, something which we are fully capable of doing and even inclined to the more we think about it.
‘Enlightened self-interest’ is a pervasive and attractive phrase, and this generation needs more of it, but it needs to be understood very carefully. It is a truth that what is good for our neighbours is good for us, it is true to say that if we take a deep look at what is good for us and what we want we are inclined to be cooperative, generous, to build society and create mutual benefit. But we cannot take from that we should be good to our neighbours because it benefits us. And it is verging on the terrible to think that this acknowledgement in any way permits us to think that a good way of encouraging generosity is to pay us to display it – that the way to activate enlightened self-interest is to squish into its meagre, unenlightened cousin.
(It reflects a debate I recall hearing about, and I assume must come up fairly regularly, in the National Blood Service about the impact paying for blood donations would have on donation patterns.)
What value is there in the points/voucher system?
Volunteers often get involved for some reason and then stay on for others, as detailed in the comprehensive pathways to participation report. Vouchers and points could play a simple role in encouraging first-time volunteers, providing an engaging interface for people who might otherwise not encounter or think of volunteering opportunities. But keep them as an introductory logic, a trojan horse.
I’m also all for thank yous, tokens of appreciation, signals that help is appreciated – and if that comes in the form of a coffee voucher I’m not going to turn it down.
To take it a step deeper, there are lots of other motivations and implications in play when someone’s contribution is rewarded. Time banks are a fantastic innovation to can unlock and give accessible structure to reciprocal economies in ways that are inclusive and empowering. But here participation is never associated with a competitive accumulation drive, but rather the need to be appreciated, valued, and to contribute. So perhaps there’s a way that that kind of system can give a more formal and accessible way for participants to receive the benefits in kind that volunteer activities do offer, and perhaps giving charities a clear way to recognise and value individuals’ contributions in way that enforces the values underpinning the volunteering.
And ironically, to end with, (lest you read in this a denial that ) I think there is a lot of valuable work done by ‘volunteers’ that should be recognised and paid for as valuable productive work, and that paid work should be freed far more to align itself with social objectives, such that the distinction between ‘for-profit’ and ‘not-for-profit’ work becomes far less distinct. How I can support this whilst simultaneously decrying rewarding volunteers with money will be the subject of a future post…. (see the RSA Animate Lecture on ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink)
So, what do you think? Would you volunteer for points or vouchers, or compete with your friends to see who’d helped out most? Am I being to harsh, can a widescale points-based incentive actually fit snuggly into volunteering activities, incentivising young people to plant the most trees and do the most social good?
Also to note: the pathways through participation report, from Involve, Institute for Volunteering Research and NCVO is good solid research into what creates and sustains participation, and worth a read if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
*I’ve been rereading Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”