Cultivating compassionCultivating Compassion: How to Encourage and Inspire Volunteer Commitment

As leaders of volunteers, we spend a fair amount of time in the business of persuasion – inspiring others to join our cause, recognizing volunteers for their efforts, and cajoling volunteers to take on just one more task,  instead of cultivating compassion. In volunteer recruitment ads we seek to answer for volunteers “What’s in it for me?”  For volunteer appreciation, we offer perks like gift cards and pins, to show our gratitude.  But, by focusing on the self-interests of volunteers, are we missing the boat on fostering deeper commitment?

By appealing to extrinsic motivators, many volunteer management approaches reflect traditional views of human nature as egocentric, motivated by self-interest and the will to survive. New research, however, shows the opposite may be true and that by actively cultivating compassion in volunteers we can inspire them to do more to benefit their community.

Altruism vs. Empathy vs. Compassion

Compassion is often confused with altruism, but it is different. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else, and it may or may not be accompanied by compassion.  Consider, for example, donated clothing or furniture. Does the donor feel compassion, or do they just need to clean out their closets?

Compassion is defined as the emotional response when suffering in others is recognized and results in an authentic desire to help. 

Compassion, therefore, can be a key driver of altruism but is not a necessary element.

Similarly, empathy is defined as the emotional experience of another person’s feelings, but may not result in compassion.  For example, we may tear up while watching a documentary about needy foster children, but may not feel a need to help.

Cultivating the Compassion Instinct

Scientists have discovered that we are born with the instinctual urge to help others – some call it the “compassionate instinct.”  It has helped us survive as a species.

Researcher Dacher Keltner, a leader in the field, asserts that “compassion and benevolence…are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.”  For more of his views on compassion and evolution see his talk below:

Although cooperation has helped us survive as a group, we each individually benefit as well.  Studies show that connecting with others helps us enjoy better emotional and physical health.  The act of giving is also pleasurable, as much (if not more) than the act of receiving.  And, people who give regularly are happier than those who do not, regardless of social status.

In short, giving makes us feel good.  So good, in fact, that when we perform behaviors associated with compassion, our bodies produce oxytocin, which leads to a feeling of warmth and connection.  This chemical reaction motivates us to be even more compassionate, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle.

Cultivating Compassion to Promote Altruism

We know that altruistic acts often rub off on others around us.  Consider many of the “random acts of kindness” that ignite a chain reaction of giving.  In addition, research has shown that compassion is a vital part of the social contract and can motivate helping behavior, even to our own detriment.

By the same token, worrying that others will see our altruistic acts as self-involved will prevent some adults from offering assistance at all.
Researchers have also found that compassion can be learned by example — not surprisingly, compassionate parents are more likely to raise altruistic children.

Four Takeaways

Given this new take on human nature and the power of compassion over self-interest, here are a few things you might consider:

  1. Instead of focusing your recruitment messages on what volunteers can get out of an experience with your organization, share stories that elicit compassion – both that vividly demonstrate the needs of those you serve and that depict altruistic volunteers in action.
  2. Rather than offering extrinsic rewards as part of recognition activities, help volunteers feel even more compassionate – recruit donors to contribute to your organization in recognition of your volunteers’ efforts.
  3. Lead by example. Find ways to cultivate compassion and altruism to volunteers and staff at the office on a regular basis. Check out the Greater Good at UC Berkeley for ideas.
  4. Finally, assume the best and be a champion of service — we’re hard-wired to help, so make the most of it by helping others get connected, make an impact, and feel good about giving.

So, to answer my question — does self-interest trump compassion?  Smile Train co-founder Brian Mullaney, quoted in a 2010 New York Times article, asserts “The most selfish thing you can do is help others.”

Perhaps compassion and self-interest are running neck-and-neck, or perhaps they are one and the same.  I’ll leave it to you to decide.