Volunteer Work Is for the Birds

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

Volunteer Work Is for the Birds

Volunteer’s Folly

Jack, a photographer, is on the go from Monday to Friday. Commissioned by fashion magazines, he divides his time between Milan, Paris, and New York and is constantly in search of the most beautiful girls, the most original designs, and the perfect light. He is well known on the social circuit, and the money is great: $500 an hour, easy. “That’s as much as a commercial lawyer,” he brags to his buddies, “and what I have in front of my lens looks a lot better than any banker.”

Jack leads an enviable life, but lately he has become more philosophical. It feels as if something has come between him and the fashion world. The selfishness of the industry suddenly repels him. Sometimes he lies in bed, staring at the ceiling, and yearns for more meaningful work. He would like to be selfless once again, to contribute something to the world, no matter how small.

One day his phone rings. It’s Patrick, his former classmate and current president of the local bird club: “Next Saturday we’re having our annual birdhouse drive. We’re looking for volunteers to help us build birdhouses for endangered species. Afterward we’ll put them up in the woods. Do you have time? We’re meeting at eight o’clock in the morning. We should be done shortly after noon.”

What should Jack say if he really is serious about creating a better world? That’s right, he should turn down the request. Why? Jack earns $500 an hour. A carpenter, $50. It would be much more sensible to work an extra hour as a photographer and then hire a professional carpenter for six hours to make good-quality birdhouses (which Jack could never hope to accomplish). Taxes aside, he could donate the difference ($200) to the bird club. Doing so, his contribution would go much further than if he grabbed a saw and rolled up his sleeves.

Nevertheless, it is highly likely that Jack will turn up bright and early next Saturday to build birdhouses. Economists call this volunteer’s folly. It is a popular phenomenon: More than one-fourth of Americans volunteer their time. But what makes it folly? Among other things, if Jack chooses to cobble together a few birdhouses himself, it takes away work from a tradesman. Working a little longer and donating a portion of the earnings is the most effective contribution Jack can make. Hands-on volunteer work would be helpful only if he could make use of his expertise. If the bird club were planning a fund-raising mail campaign and needed a professional photo, Jack could either shoot it himself or work an hour longer to hire another top photographer and donate the remainder.

So now we come to the thorny topic of altruism. Does selflessness exist at all or is it merely a balm to our egos? Although a desire to help the community motivates many volunteers, personal benefits play a big part, such as gaining skills, experience, and contacts. Suddenly we’re not acting quite so selflessly. Indeed, many volunteers engage in what might be deemed “personal happiness management,” the benefits of which are sometimes far removed from the real cause. Strictly speaking, anyone who profits or feels even the slightest satisfaction from volunteering is not a pure altruist.

So does it mean Jack is a fool if he turns up, hammer in hand, on Saturday morning? Not necessarily. There is one group exempt from volunteer’s folly: celebrities. If Bono, Kate Winslet, and Mark Zuckerberg pose for photos while making birdhouses, cleaning oil-stained beaches, or digging for earthquake victims, they lend something priceless to the situation: publicity. Therefore, Jack must critically assess whether he is famous enough to make his participation worthwhile. The same applies to you and me: If people don’t double-take when they pass you on the street, the best way to contribute is with greenbacks rather than greenhorn labor.