Here’s to the Volunteers!

By Greg Nathan posted January 10, 2020
For several years an important part of my end of year break has been to participate in a four day retreat, hosted by friends who live in a beautiful, secluded Queensland valley. We meditate, reflect on our values, and enjoy the peace of a forest filled with chirping birds, inquisitive kangaroos and other fascinating native Australian animals. Driving into the valley this year I was in for a shock. Instead of lush green vibrant bush, the seven homes of my friends stood barren in a silent, charred landscape of ash and blackened tree stumps. The fires that have been ravaging Australia paid them a visit two weeks ago, sweeping down the mountain side and through the valley.

Heroes emerge

I learned how their local township had pulled together, sending a fleet of 13 fire trucks to defend my friends’ homes. In the midst of the drama, one of the fire trucks ran out of water and caught fire, a reminder of the dangers in this work. I was particularly moved to see how my friends were looking after surviving animals traumatised by the fires, and to hear how the mostly volunteer fire fighters had worked tirelessly for five days and nights to save the houses. Several were local dairy farmers on the brink of bankruptcy due to droughts also plaguing the country, yet they willingly sacrificed their time and safety to help their neighbours. While these bushfires have wrought destruction and misery, they have also brought out the best in many people who have shown extraordinary generosity. While this is especially true of the hundreds of thousands of volunteer fire fighters who have forfeited holidays and personal safety to help those in trouble, it also includes the millions of people who are making substantial donations.

An interesting question

The dictionary defines a volunteer as a person who does something, especially helping other people, willingly and without being forced or paid to do it. I was recently in India explaining to a group of franchisors the importance of encouraging a collaborative culture where people contribute to working groups and share their ideas. A man at the back of the room put up his hand and asked, “Why would anyone give their time and ideas without compensation?” I was initially dumbfounded by the question because I have always been an avid volunteer, and have experienced the powerful personal and organisational benefits of having a giver’s mindset. But then I realised, from a short-term commercial perspective, one could argue that people in a work setting who freely contribute their time may seem stupid, and business owners who expect others to volunteer for tasks that go beyond their basic roles could be seen as being exploitative. Indeed, last year a high-profile franchisor executive was brutally and unfairly flamed in the media as promoting worker exploitation, when she innocently suggested there were benefits in young people being willing to volunteer for internships and work experience programs. While no reasonable person would advocate for the exploitation of people for unfair personal gain, the truth is, volunteers are essential to the health of our society. Just imagine a world where no-one was willing to contribute anything without an expectation of being paid. The economic, social and humanitarian impact would be devastating.

The psychology of giving

Thankfully there are good reasons why people do volunteer. Some are more self-serving, such as to develop new skills, make useful connections or gain career advancement. But there is also a substantial body of research showing that altruistic motives, such as helping others and living according to one’s personal values, bring significant physical and mental health benefits to volunteers, including greater longevity*. In this spirit, it has been interesting to hear several State Fire Service Commissioners reject calls for volunteer fire fighters to be compensated for their work in the current bushfire crisis. Their message? It would undermine the spirit of volunteerism underpinning their organisational culture. Research by Professor Adam Grant from Harvard has also demonstrated the benefits of altruistic giving, where people who have learned how to give for the right reasons and in a disciplined manner, are over represented in the top 25% of business performers. So while having people who are willingly prepared to give their time may be helpful to the business and social communities to which they belong, these people are also likely to experience personal and commercial benefits. I love the inherent justice in this.

Free Crisis Managament Kit

Thanks to those who have volunteered their time with an open heart this past year to make a positive difference to others. This tip is dedicated to you. And if you think you are likely to come into contact with anyone who has been impacted by fires or other traumatic events, we have put together a Free Crisis Management Kit filled with practical business and psychological tips. This will be particularly useful for franchisor support people. Download the kit here. Welcome to the New Year! * Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., Lou, A., & Brown, S. (2012). Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Health Psychology, 31(1), 87–96.

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