In September 2011, the professional networking website LinkedIn started to offer members the possibility to include their volunteer experience in their profiles. While we may be thinking about volunteering as helping others at a cost to oneself, the new option at LinkedIn allows members to help oneself by advertising their volunteering activities. The website introduced the feature with the claim that ‘volunteering is as good for your career as it is to those you help’.
Indeed it seems that volunteer experience is becoming an essential feature of a curriculum vitae. From the point of view of the employer it may make sense to start paying attention to volunteer experience when they hire new personnel. When the diploma alone is giving them insufficient information, employers will use other types of information. Volunteer experience may give employers useful leads about the skills and motivations of prospective employees. In addition, volunteering expands social networks and may give workers inside information about job opportunities. The social capital gained through volunteering may get people ahead as much as the human capital – or worse – in conjunction with human capital.
When I presented the plans for my research on the influence of education on volunteering and engagement in philanthropy to researchers in the US back in 2005, the importance of education was considered self-evident. At that time, many schools in the US already required students to do service learning and resume building is part and parcel of the experience. While the rhetoric around service is about social responsibility and contributing to the community, for students, however, service is also and perhaps more importantly about the skills and occupational experience that they can gain.
This year the Ministry of Education in the Netherlands has introduced the obligation for all students in secondary education (ages 12-18) to do at least 30 hours of service. The evaluation study I conducted for the Ministry of Education showed that indeed for some groups of students service learning promotes the development of civic-mindedness over the course of a school year. Interestingly, these were students at the highest levels of secondary education. The majority of students, however, were unaffected and in some groups at the lowest level of secondary education the scores on indicators like altruistic values and generalized social trust even declined after service learning. Still a large majority of students were positive about their service learning experiences. This finding was used in parliament to support the introduction of the service learning requirement.
The current discourse on service learning is characterized by a ‘soft’ social capital community oriented value orientation. But now I wonder whether an increasing orientation on skills will undermine the development of prosocial value orientations. The service learning experience will get some ahead because they are able to gain new skills and strengthen the skills they already have. Of course this development can be ignored from a ‘Gesinnungsethik’ position viewing science as a vocation – a call to find the facts. But this may be too easy. The new service learning requirement will have consequences for the future careers of students, motivations to volunteer, and for voluntary organizations.
Journalists often ask whether motivations to volunteer among youth are more self-oriented than among adults. The related question is whether adults today have more self-oriented motivations than two or three decades ago. Due to a lack of data we cannot answer either question but I would expect both questions can be answered with ‘yes’. The times have changed. The focus on gaining skills through volunteering and the inclusion of volunteer experience in online networking profiles contribute to this change. As a social scientist, I am curious about the consequences.
There you have it – the two most interesting findings from an article about the accuracy of self-reported donations, taken to their extremes. Of course the headline is phrased such that it captured your attention. But if you actually read the article you will find that the headline is a little white lie (from a fairly secular university graduate). The conclusions that can be drawn from the research are much more specific: the accuracy of self-reported donations to a major health research and prevention charity (the Dutch Cancer Society) in the course of the calender year 2003 varies systematically with some of the predictors of actual giving, including the level of education and religious affiliation.
Here’s why this matters. In survey research we usually rely on the information that respondents provide about themselves. If people are inaccurate in their responses about their donations – for instance because they forget about donations they have made or because they exaggerate their giving – a bias is introduced in our predictive models of giving. We may think that getting a university degree makes people more generous, but in fact university graduates are simply more likely to say they donate larger amounts.
Or do they? Yes, university graduates donate more than people with lower levels of education, it turns out. But they also report higher donations than have actually been received by the Cancer Society. Relying on university graduates’ self-reports of donations we overestimate their generosity, we found in a comparison with their actual donations. Donations by respondents with tertiary education are self-reported to be €29 higher than donations by respondents with primary education, though the average difference in donations as recorded in the charity’s database is only €17.
For religion, we found the opposite pattern. As a rule, donations by members of all religious groups distinguished in this study are recorded to be higher than reported. Reformed Protestants for example report donations that are somewhat higher (€8) but do not differ significantly from donations reported by the non-religious. According to the database, however, the average donations recorded by Reformed Protestants are significantly higher (€15) than donations by the non-religious.
Whether the inaccuracy is motivated or due to cognitive problems is difficult to determine. We did rule out that higher educated respondents were more likely to forget about smaller donations as a result of making a larger number of donations over the course of the calender year. We did find support for the case of motivated responding. We found that respondents who agreed with the statement that they “do everything to make others feel more comfortable” have a higher probability of overreporting. But controlling for this difference did not reduce the bias in the effect of tertiary education on overreporting. The search continues…and any cues are appreciated.
A consistent finding in the literature on volunteering is that volunteers report better health than non-volunteers. It is often argued that this result not only implies that health facilitates volunteering activity, but that volunteering is also a way for individuals to maintain their health, avoid decline or even to enhance their health. While a large body of research has examined the relationship between volunteering and health, the evidence is in fact far from conclusive because previous research has often failed to address the direction of causality adequately. The relation between volunteering and health may be the result of (a) selection of more healthy people into volunteering; (b) a causal influence of volunteering on health; or (c) both. Also it is unclear which factors produce the health benefits of volunteering, and which types of volunteering have the strongest health benefits.
This study, funded by the Ministry of Health, Well Being and Sports, will add important insights on the causality in the relationship between volunteering and health:
- Causation and selection processes will be disentangled, such that it becomes clear to what extent volunteering actually benefits health;
- Health benefits of different types of volunteering will be examined separately, such that it becomes clear which organizations and which tasks benefit the health of volunteers the most;
- Three alternative explanations of the health benefits of volunteering will be tested, such that it becomes clear why volunteering benefits health, and why some types of volunteering are more beneficial than others.
The results of these analyses enable informed decisions by policy makers and health professionals in the promotion of volunteering as a way to support health in old age.
The data that will be used in the research are from the Longitudinal Ageing Study Amsterdam (LASA), a nationally representative random sample panel survey among the elderly (aged 55 and older) in the Netherlands. Permission to use this dataset has been obtained; no additional data collection is needed to complete the research. The research will be conducted from July to December 2011.
Co-investigators: Arjen de Wit (intern), Marja Aartsen (Sociology).
More information about the research project is in the research proposal.