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The Folly of Volunteer’s Folly

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

In his book “the Art of Thinking Clearly” Rolf Dobelli incorrectly argues that volunteering is folly. He gives the example of a prestigious photographer who is normally paid $500 per hour and who receives a call from a friend who asks the photographer to volunteer by building birdhouses for endangered birds with the Audobon Society. Because the photographer earns $500/hour while the average carpenter charges $50 the photographer should work an hour longer and use the extra hour’s funds to pay a professional carpenter to build birdhouses and/or donate money to the Audubon society. Dobelli goes further to deride volunteering by suggesting volunteering is primarily a selfish pursuit, one of grabbing contacts, experience, personal happiness and skills. Most surprisingly Dobelli finishes his chapter by suggesting that only celebrities ought to volunteer because “they lend something priceless to the situation: publicity.”

There are many pitfalls to Dobelli’s arguments. First, the situation that Dobelli paints is a highly privileged situation, one of an individual with high-earning potential presumably at a moment’s notice. Not everyone has access to a high-earning gig; instead many earn salaries, are unemployed or underemployed. These individuals can’t simply work an extra hour to create new funds used to hire carpenters to build birdhouses. In the interest of helping endangered birds they might still donate money but if they would prefer not to spend money volunteering with the Audobon Society would still be legitimate.

Even in the case of the $500/hour photographer it would be wrong to presume that they are flowing with job offers; they may need funds from their work to pay for necessities or other desirables. The photographer might rather save their money for things that absolutely require money (e.g. you can’t volunteer time to secure a mortgage) and use their time however they choose. Even more, were the photographer to hire a carpenter it might take them an hour just to find a candidate, which cancels the hour saved by not volunteering.

Selfish motives to volunteer are not bad and certainly not repulsive enough to discourage someone from volunteering altogether. There is nothing wrong with a win-win scenario for both a cause and a volunteer. In fact having selfish motives align with altruistic causes is ideal. Having a selfish motive to do good is much better than having a selfish to do bad. In the case of the Audobon volunteer opportunity nothing is wrong with rallying to an old friend’s call to help endangered birds. Feeding into Dobelli’s theory the photographer could even be inspired by the endangered birds to create a new photography project. Most of all the individual should volunteer in person to build their character, in this case by way of friendship and environmentalism. With an improved character chances are higher that the volunteer will do even more good things in the future. From this ideally the photographer would volunteer and donate.

It would be an absurd world were only celebrities to volunteer, namely to give a cause publicity. While publicity can be immensely helpful a cause often needs boots on the ground to fulfill its mission. In the case of hurricane disaster relief volunteers might be desperately needed to lay sandbags, deliver emergency supplies, attend to survivors’ needs, clean debris. Publicity can't fix everything. The everyday volunteer is necessary and should be encouraged.


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