What motivates volunteers?

n° 392 - April 2001

The volunteer sector, known in France as "le secteur de la solidarité," covers a wide range of activities, and although all participants provide support to others, their motivations and beliefs are as diverse as the organizations themselves.

Nonna Mayer, CNRS Research Director and member of the "Centre d'études de la vie politique française" ("Center for the study of French political life," Cévipof), has coordinated a report on the role of non-profit, charitable organizations, to study how they restructure systems of altruism through individual involvement and the social and political links this creates. Sophie Duchesne, a CNRS researcher at the Maison Française d'Oxford, has analyzed the forms altruism takes by studying Amnesty International activists and volunteers with the "Restos du cœur," a French soup kitchen.

Examination of these organizations reveals that, although based on equality and volunteering, they do not necessarily function with the unanimity that might be expected. Ideological differences and two very different approaches to voluntary activity affect the players.

The members of Amnesty International constitute a homogenous group of the qualified sector of the working population, with justifyist leanings, while the volunteers of the Restos are a heterogeneous group, comprising members of the non-working population. The mode of functioning within the organizations accentuates the differences: at Amnesty, all actions require certain skills and the more qualified members do not automatically occupy responsible positions, while at the Restos, volunteers carry out tasks according to their capabilities. The attitudes of those involved vary accordingly. At Amnesty, subscription-paying members elect people to posts of responsibility, and at the Restos, those who hold responsibility do so because of their skills. The Resto volunteers cannot influence the direction the organization takes.

At Amnesty, members are motivated mainly by the cause, while at the Restos, availability and the need to be useful are paramount. Amnesty International clearly states that it is political, and involvement is hence political, though non-partisan. Involvement at the Restos is far more time-consuming than at Amnesty International. All volunteers agree, though, that they gain much in terms of human relationships and a feeling of usefulness. Nevertheless, this is not sufficient to explain the discrepancies between expectations from their input and the actual results.

Perhaps the meaning given to the word 'solidarity' can explain why volunteers and activists continue. In the approach that underlies the Restos, 'solidarity' means making available some of what one has to those who are deprived. This view goes hand in hand with an attitude that does not aim at reforming society. The organization of the Restos, which sustains the differences between the volunteers, endorses this approach. Another conception of 'solidarity', centered on the notion of sharing, is based on a universalistic vision of human nature. At Amnesty, individual activists have to trust in the group. Although the groups have little chance of freeing the prisoners they adopt, their existence maintains the organization internationally, and this attenuates, to a certain extent, abuses of human rights. Whether particularistic or universalistic, these two visions of 'solidarity' stem from the outlook of the players involved and from the way in which the organizations operate.

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