A Practical Guide to Inspiring Volunteerism

Fifty-five years ago, President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps. This volunteer program has been a huge success, with more than 200,000 people giving their time to work on social and economic issues in developing countries. More than ever, people seem to be excited about getting involved in their communities.   

However, despite people saying they want to help, volunteerism is actually decreasing. In 2014, the U.S. Labor Department recorded the lowest rate of volunteering in more than 10 years.    

How, then, do we get people to follow through with their plans to volunteer? Or more broadly, how do we foster a society where people make time to help others?

There is a biblical story about a man who helped a traveler beaten by a gang of thugs, while other people just passed by. This story has become known as the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is often used to show that good people help and bad people don't help those in need. 

The Princeton Theological Seminary designed a research experiment around this story. In one building, participants who completed a questionnaire were instructed to walk to another building to give a talk either about jobs or the parable of the Good Samaritan. Like most social psychological experiments, participants were divided into two groups: half were told they were late to give the presentation while the other half were told they had a reasonable amount of time to get to the building. The experimenters also staged an actor, called a confederate, who the participants would see slouched in an alley, moaning and coughing, as they walked to give the presentation. This man was clearly visible and obviously in need of help. The question was, would people stop to help him?

The study answered this question with two interesting findings. First and counterintuitively, the topic of the presentation didn’t affect whether people were willing to help, even when the talk was about the Good Samaritan. Second, the degree of urgency introduced had a major effect on whether participants stopped to help. People who were told they were late to give the talk were the least likely to help the man in the alley. In fact, only 10% of people in the “high hurry” category helped the actor.

So what is the take home-point of this research as it relates to volunteerism or helping others? It’s natural to assume that a person giving a talk on the Good Samaritan would stop to help someone in order to avoid feeling like a hypocrite. Similarly, it seems logical that people who express interest in volunteering would feel like hypocrites if they don’t follow through and volunteer. However, the biggest predictor of whether people actually help is often how much time they have. In other words, planning doesn’t have as big of an impact on volunteering as a person’s immediate situation.

How, then, can we apply this research so that more people can make time to help others? Making an internal commitment to volunteer is the first step, but it’s important to strategically block off time so that we’re not in a hurry to get other things done that could stop us from following through. Making more time for others can be as simple as using a scheduler. Calendars offered by Google or “to-do” applications such as Asana or TeuxDeux are fantastic tools to plan personal tasks, but there’s nothing stopping you from using them to slot time for others. These online tools have the benefit of being shareable, and many offer amusing “attaboys” when you finish a task. Booking an event is important because then you don’t have to make more (often unavailable) time to volunteer. As strange as it might sound, research supports the idea that blocking off time in a calendar to help others can help you follow through with your plans.*

We all have busy lives, so start by volunteering your time close to home (e.g., by helping a family member or friend with a project). You’re most likely to make an impact among those closest to you, and for many people that may be all the time that is available. If you find yourself wanting to get more involved, however, schedule time to help a local non-profit organization, church, or other community organization. And if you’re really ambitious, find a way to devote two years of your life to the Peace Corps.

* The strategy presented in this week’s post extends far beyond getting people to help others—it can also be used to help people follow through with a large number of activities in their personal lives and work. I’ll write more about those applications in the near future.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com