Helping yourself by helping others?

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.


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