Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Is it service? Or self-serving?

The best part of road trips with friends you haven't seen in awhile is the chance to dive into topics you usually don't have time to discuss. That was the case over Labor Day with my friend Michael, when we passed the miles between Sodus Bay and Buffalo discussing the nature of community service.

(This was after stopping for ice cream and before using the GPS to find out if every state had a town named "Mumford." For the record, it does not.)

Michael's question kicked it off: "In your experience, are the people you meet while volunteering doing it because it makes a difference, or because it makes them feel good?"

Ah, my experience. I started to review the "volunt-eras" of my life:

1. Childhood. Little Julia has a sense of right and wrong. Love your neighbor as yourself. And don't say mean things.

2. Tweenhood. Julia is expected to put in 50 hours of community service to receive Confirmation. She briefly links service to mild torture.

3. Adolescence. Julia learns about social justice, specifically the Catholic Church's themes. The consistent ethic of life and the firm belief in all human dignity stick with her as a grown-up version of "love your neighbor as yourself." She occasionally says mean things, but tries to compensate by visiting the elderly ... until play practice takes over.

4. College. Big girl Julia now gets to make her own choices. So she keeps going to church. She also joins Habitat, which takes over her life for the next 3.5 years. In that time, Julia goes on four alternative spring breaks to four states, builds several complete houses, and raises enough money to build another in Syracuse. She then collapses from exhaustion -- but not before recognizing the visible impact her work can have on a human life, and by extension the world.

5. Young adulthood, Philly edition. Julia gets her IMS on by coordinating monthly meals at Manna on Main St. She gets a serious kick from planning healthy, well-balanced menus, and resigns herself to eternal dorkhood.

6. Young adulthood, DC edition. Julia tutors ESL classes through her parish 1) because it's near work, 2) it's a great way to meet people, 3) it's a new skill to learn, and 4) she gets to yammer on for 45 minutes every Tuesday to a captive audience.

And that was just my personal arc. I then thought of the hundreds of fellow servers I had met over the years. Many I knew came because of religious or humanist convictions. Others came for the fun. Quite a few saw it only as resume-building. And several didn't want to be there at all.

But a funny thing happened with these disparate origins. Soon, most of these people's stories threaded together and became a new narrative, one which chronicled a common purpose and mission. No matter what they came for, people stayed for the social justice (my words, not theirs). They stayed because their effort and time grew to something greater -- a difference. This was service at its purest.

And looking back, I finally saw what separated successful, lasting volunteer opportunities from the DOAs. When people felt under-utilized, when their work was 18 steps removed from the visible impact, when they couldn't see how any of it mattered, the entire operation faltered. Folks grew disillusioned. Their intentions narrowed, and volunteering became a superficial tic on a checklist of what's expected, not what's chosen. This was only self-serving.

"Both," I said to Michael. "Most people I had the privilege of meeting did it because it made a difference. They believed in social justice. But when done right, it made them feel good too. And that's what made the behavior -- and the lessons -- stick."

At the very least, my answer jived with altruism's roots in evolutionary biology. Essentially, these studies say, we care to survive -- hence why a positive volunteering effect would have a Pavlovian response.

The idea that we're hard-wired to care, and don't choose to care, can be difficult to reconcile with the religious concept of free will. In a way, it takes the moral fun out of volunteering (for those who are inclined to discern moral fun), since much of the "feel good" quotient comes from a sense of following a higher calling, rather than a primordial drive to ensure our species continues.

But does it really matter how we get there, as long as we GET there? Be it instinctual or God-given -- or both -- the outcome is the same: By doing good for each other, we all do well together.

This concept is at the root of ServiceNation, a nascent movement poised to hit the big time this Thursday and Friday. (FYI: I'll be live-blogging it over at Social Citizens if you care to follow, and will post my personal reflections here later.) It's the reason I chose to reroute my career path to the nonprofit sector. And it's why I continue to serve -- not because I'm told it's right, but because I believe it's right.

So what would you have answered Michael?


  1. well said. however, i disagree that it doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you do get there. i would say that those people who are there for "good" reasons, those who care about social justice and believe in one human's duty to care for another simply because they are human, too, have a more lasting impact. not only do they continue coming back and become reliable volunteers, but their enthusiasm for what they do is contagious. they begin to let the lessons they learn bleed into other areas of their lives and thus fold in new volunteers by way of conversation and passion. I think that Bill Gates says it particularly well:
    "I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world's deepest inequities …on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity." That seems specific to international volunteering, but is equally as applicable to everyone.

  2. Good point, Susannah. Let me clarify my point: People may come for different reasons, but staying for the *same* reason, i.e. increasing their passion for service, is essential. So I say let's not worry what gets them in the room, let's focus on the deeper significance of their presence there, and help them evolve to that "more lasting impact" you point out.

  3. Anonymous9:26 PM

    I think In would have asked him why he cared.<"What is your motive"?) "Why are you asking me to judge them?" You then told how doing good to others has been taught to you all your life and now seems the normal thing for you to do. I have generally been involved public and civil affairs since I left the Army Air Corps in 1945. Chaired the Bi-Centennial committee in 1976, served on the town council, was active in Habitat for several years and have been President of the historical society for 36 years. My sister, who is two years younger than me is married to a preacher(now retired) and she has devoted her life to teaching Christianity to women, mostly, not compensated. Mo brother, who is seven years younger than she lives in a city of about 25000. For about the last 25 years he has served on the school board or the utility board, of which he is now chairman. We grew up in a little village during the depression where my father was the barber. We didn,t have very much, but, I remember a cripple and deformed artist who lived in shack near. My mother would often fix food which I would take to him. I only relate this to you Julia, so you would understand a little more of my background.We were not like you. I've never asked myself why I do these things. I really don't know why I do. I guess I think it's just the right thing to do. I'm mostly a happy man. I've noticed that people who are "other person centered" are usually happy. I was in business 30 years and dealt with many people. Most of them were honorable and pleasant to deal with. I remember three who self centered. They were difficult to deal with and caused many problems, they were unhappy often sick. They all died in their fifties. I fully believe it is better to give than to receive. I surely don,t know how to answer Michael'question because I've never asked any one why they do it. Jesus said "I'ts by their fruit that ye shall know them". We can see what they have done, but I doubt if we will ever know why. Keep up the good work!!!!!

  4. Anonymous9:30 PM

    Lots of typos, but you know me and I'm sure you get the gist.