- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Selfish Volunteering

I’m a selfish guy. I consider my time and energy important, so I don’t waste it on activities that aren’t important to me. Considering I lean towards self-absorption, it may seem odd that I’m a huge supporter of volunteering. The truth is, volunteerism has many selfish benefits if you can see past the stigma of being a do-gooder.

I started volunteering as a soccer coach for kids a couple years ago. Until that point, volunteering was always a “should” that I never had time for. But after realizing the selfish benefits I could take from jobs with no pay, I’ve had several larger volunteer positions:

That short list doesn’t include the smaller, one-off volunteering events I’ve done in the past 2-3 years. I’m sure some of you have an even longer list of extra-curricular activities, but for the benefit of those who haven’t taken on larger volunteering challenges, I’d like to share my experiences.

Avoid Lose-Win Scenarios

A big mistake is to see selfish and selfless benefits as being in conflict. Hollywood has set the image that being rich and successful in life comes at the cost of the people around you. Big business people are selfish, trying to make a buck at the cost of the little guy. The monk who begs for food on the street is more virtuous than the power-broker who earns millions of dollars a year without thinking of other people.

In reality, you can be selfish and selfless at the same time. When you buy a loaf of bread, both you and the baker are better off. The baker has money for his family and you have something to eat. It’s win-win.

Self-sacrifice is a lose-win scenario. Other people make a gain off your expense. Although self-sacrifice is seen as honorable, it’s a lower quality transaction than a win-win scenario. I try to avoid lose-win scenarios whenever there is a win-win alternative. Most people do.

I’ve taken on so many volunteer projects because they are win-win situations. The lack of pay and extra work may smell like a lose-win, but there are great benefits if you see past the surface.

Selfish Benefits of Volunteering

There are a lot of great reasons to take on volunteer positions, you just need to look past the lack of a paycheck. Here are just a few of the selfish reasons I’ve volunteered:

  1. Experience. You can get positions you aren’t qualified for as a volunteer. I’m doing IT for a banquet, which will be valuable in practicing my web and database skills. I can get this position because it’s volunteer, if the position were paid, they would hire somebody better.
  2. Networking. Volunteering levels the field between the VIP’s and regular people. Since I’ve taken on my position as a Manager of Corporate Relations, I’ve dealt with several higher level executives. That contact would have been impossible if I were just working a regular job.
  3. Part-Time. Most volunteer positions understand you need to earn money. Therefore, it’s easier to add a volunteer job to your schedule than a regular position.
  4. Leadership. If you show initiative, it isn’t hard to move up the ladder in a volunteer organization. I have friends who have led a 50+ person team and been in control of an operating budget of $500,000 in their early twenties. Moving up to that level takes a lot more work in a corporate environment.
  5. Media Opportunities. I have no desire to be a celebrity. But if you have a business idea that needs exposure, pushing yourself into volunteer activities gives you a bigger chance of getting noticed. I’ve been in local papers a few times for volunteering efforts, and the exposure can be useful for other projects you’re trying to get started.
  6. More Flexibility to Leave. Jobs chain you with a paycheck. Even if you’ve sucked all the educational and leadership opportunities out of a job, the money might keep you there. If you take on a volunteer position, it’s easier to leave.
  7. Friends. I’ve found volunteering is a good way to meet non-lazy, passionate people. The attitude is often different in a volunteer environment, so you don’t need to spend as much time with people who don’t have your values.

I’ve avoided mentioning resume-boosting. I hate people who take on activities solely to boost their resume, but I suppose it’s also a benefit of volunteering.

Not All Volunteer Positions were Created Equal

I’ve had great experiences volunteering and I’ve also had frustrating ones. I don’t volunteer with activities when I don’t care about the work being done. I didn’t show up to a single meeting to help organize my grad. I didn’t see the value in putting that much effort into a party.

Maybe I just have a contrarian streak, but I’ve spent a lot of time finding value in things other people ignore. I read books most people find boring. I wake up early when most people want to sleep in. I work on personal projects instead of watching television. I think volunteering is another one of those activities that is easy to ignore if you don’t look closely enough.

Find volunteer positions that offer you selfish benefits (experience, leadership opportunities, networking) and inspire you. Volunteering may be spiritually fulfilling, but it has many greedy, material benefits as well.