The selfish act of volunteering

February 16, 2010



1. a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.

2. a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

My understanding of this term correlates with its definition — it’s an act one does for no personal gain, except the “feel-good” factor. It’s supposed to be one of those things where you’re giving of yourself without any expectations. It’s something you do for a cause — usually involving the betterment of someone less fortunate than yourself. It’s for the priceless experience of lighting up someone else’s life. It’s not meant to be for or about you. It’s to give back to the community. A noble thing for the greater good.

But Disney’s Give A Day Get A Disney Day program has me in a tizzy. Can we not even give of ourselves without the proverbial carrot dangling in front of us? Are we so selfish that we will only give our time and expertise to someone in need only when we get something in return?

I have seen people volunteer only because it looks good on their resume. Or, when they’ve wanted to “network” prior to applying at an MBA school. Volunteering in the name of self-advancement. Then why does this program bother me so much?

Because it takes the farce to a whole new level. It’s asking millions of people across the country to sign up, step out, and give back only to get something back in return. Something for themselves. It’s not just about those handful few anymore who do it for selfish gains. It’s about starting a movement that says it’s ok to be narcissistic. It’s alright to help someone as long as you’re really helping yourself. It’s acceptable for “service unto others” be the secondary reason — you’re really in it for you.

You. You. You.

That’s what it screams to me. And that’s the message we seem to be comfortable passing on to future generations…

When did we become so self-centered? How did we become so shallow?

I do hope that people, once they have the experience, will get so hooked by the “other” rewards (the smiles, the tears, the affection, the contentment) that they will become volunteers for life. Not just for a day pass to the happiest place in the world.

One can always hope … right?

Update 2/22: After a long and intense debate with my significant other, I have come to the conclusion that volunteering is a selfish act. Period. Dividing selfish into material and non-material gains doesn’t apply or matter, because at the end of the day, one does it for personal gain — be it a feel-good experience or something with monetary value.

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18 Responses to The selfish act of volunteering

  1. UPLIFT ANTIDOTENo Gravatar on February 16, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    You have a really important point.

    When I was growing up there was real emphasis on doing good ‘deeds’. I was in the brownies and it was really pushed on us the importance of caring for others and the importance of just being kind. Also, caring for the elderly and for animals.

    Not only in Church but in the magazines I read, the programs I watched, from my school and of course, my family.

    Nowadays, I don’t see this message too much at all.

    I remember feeling very pleased with myself for doing a kind thing. It felt right to me. And I didn’t need a Disney Day to prompt me. Just being kind to others was reward in itself.

    You are so very right to point this out – it is important. The role models society sets matter.

    • Mansi BhatiaNo Gravatar on February 19, 2010 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks, Jacqui. I remember that, too. We would distribute food to the homeless lined outside a local temple once a month. My mom used to say there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the smile in someone’s eyes. That smile came from the heart and touched mine. If I only did that for money though I probably wouldn’t even notice that smile…

      But I guess for some the motivation doesn’t matter. It’s the end result that does.

  2. TirzahNo Gravatar on February 16, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Our culture has moved to a ‘me’ culture. Everyone wins at every game so no one learns to lose gracefully. Consequences are never applied to bad behavior. And then everyone wonders why people are self-involved.

    Not that everyone is but many are.


    • Mansi BhatiaNo Gravatar on February 19, 2010 at 5:05 pm

      That is so true, Tirzah. We have become such a narcissistic species. I can’t imagine what it will be like two decades from now given the messages we’re giving to the next generation…

  3. beth chapmanNo Gravatar on February 16, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Oh so true – as is your hope that what they receive, if initiated for other reasons, will hook them and open their eyes. It reminds me of work where we pay people to work safe and not get sliced with the glass windows we make. It gets really twisted. Good insight into yet another unspoken but accepted ‘conversation’ occurring way too often.

  4. Marcella Corroeli JagerNo Gravatar on February 17, 2010 at 6:13 am

    HI Mansi – just thought I’d drop by your site from Writer’s Rising- haven’t been here before – well, I like it here – so clean and neat! i like your point of view – I so agree about that carrot – its a strange world we live in isn’t it? I cringe every time I hear about kick-backs and rewards and Disney…don’t get me started…

    Here in Canada we have our highschool kids log in 40 hours of volunteer service to be able to graduate – which can be a good thing to encourage…but it can and does become for some or many something to get done because they need it to graduate – similar with the MBA/resume thing -but i have to say that a lot of these kids, because they are forced, do end up loving what they do and are grateful for the push, or they’d never do it on their own..

    so i signed up to get updates of your new posts – thanks for your thoughts – they are worth reading!

    • Mansi BhatiaNo Gravatar on February 19, 2010 at 5:02 pm

      Thanks, Marcella. Appreciate your insights and support.

  5. Vikas YadavNo Gravatar on February 17, 2010 at 7:12 am

    “Are we so selfish that we will only give our time and expertise to someone in need only when we get something in return?”
    NO. People volunteer in all kinds of ways, in various kinds of situations, and for all kinds of causes. They do not go on telling their deeds just like that. So, basically by looking at a person, and in fact even after spending some time with that person, we cannot estimate even 5% of his or her volunteering activities.

    “I have seen people volunteer only because it looks good on their resume.”
    I think you are not saying that this is not ok. Because we are no way sure that this person has not done any volunteering which was not for his or her resume. Maybe they do non-resume-driven volunteering too, lots of it, just that they do not tell us that as there is not much need to do so, which is ok.

    “…and give back only to get something back in return”
    We should let every individual decide what is the value of “return”, it can vary from self-satisfaction, mere joy (non-material gains) to tax-deductions and bullets on resume (material gains). In an ideal world, volunteering will be done for all the non-material gains, in a real world, volunteering will be done for both material and non-material gains, which is ok too.

    • Mansi BhatiaNo Gravatar on February 19, 2010 at 5:03 pm

      I guess as long as we’re back in some form or the other, the motivation behind it doesn’t matter to most…

      • Vikas YadavNo Gravatar on February 23, 2010 at 6:58 pm

        I cannot agree more with your significant other :)

        I think I was trying to imply that I do not want to be judgmental of others intents. I volunteer and I am being selfish in doing so; I know it for myself. But, I would not dare to judge for others (due to lack of my complete knowledge of humongous things like human mind, values, morals etc.).

      • Vikas YadavNo Gravatar on February 23, 2010 at 7:34 pm

        Just to make sure that we are on the same page as far as casting volunteering as a selfish act, i should tell you why i agree.

        Even in the case when we volunteer to help because we find it our moral duty to help someone in need, we do it to so that we do not feel bad and guilty. To save self from the guilt and bad feeling makes it a selfish act. Similarly, any other reason for volunteering can be justified as a selfish act. This is what i meant. Is this same as your meaning?

      • Vikas YadavNo Gravatar on February 23, 2010 at 7:45 pm

        Now that we are on the same page: I have a question: Give me three acts which are not selfish?

        • Mansi BhatiaNo Gravatar on February 23, 2010 at 10:13 pm

          None. Every act is selfish. Here’s an example to illustrate: We were standing in line at 8:30 a.m. to watch the King Tut exhibit. It was cold. I had a scarf around my neck and a woolen cap to protect my ears. Brijesh had neither. So I “selflessly” gave him my cap. But was it truly a selfless act? No, because it gave me the satisfaction of knowing I had helped him. That I had contributed to keeping him warm. It made him comfortable and that made me happy. If I didn’t get anything out of it, it may have been selfless, but I did, so it wasn’t.

  6. medical assistantNo Gravatar on April 30, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    nice post. thanks.

  7. MarkSpizerNo Gravatar on May 3, 2010 at 6:28 am

    great post as usual!

  8. vanessaNo Gravatar on October 8, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    well, duh!
    Of course its selfish. Everything in life is something we do to get something out of it. The reason we have relationships is because we get more good than bad from it. If it turs sour, then we dump the relationship. At least volunteering is a greater good. Why not? Everything is about balance. If you don’t give then your not going to get. You just have to be willing to give first. Thats why volunteering is so important. It shows that your willing to put someone else’s needs first with the faith of gaining later. Its what makes the world rotate. Without it we just die. Stupid people!

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