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individuals might volunteer to help others by comparing experimental results with the self-reported motivations of Teach for America volunteers. Ultimately, the study demonstrates that volunteerism is rooted in self-interest, and this is evidenced by not only the experimental data, but by the actions of Teach for America as an organization as well as the self-reports of individual members. Although this does not help explain why volunteerism is held in such high regard, it does serve to demonstrate that volunteering and ostensibly altruistic actions are not as difficult to explain as one might think.
The question of why people volunteer to help others is difficult to answer succinctly, because answering it demands that one consider a number of relatively disparate fields of study and investigation, including everything from evolutionary psychology to management theory. However, one can at least begin to formulate a general explanation of volunteerism that seems to hold regardless of the particular individual, organization, or task by examining previous research on volunteerism as well as information regarding a fairly popular contemporary volunteer organization, Teach for America. By considering more general investigations into volunteerism alongside specific accounts of Teach for America volunteers, one is able to appreciate how the drive to volunteer stems not from altruism, but rather self-interest coded as altruism because the particular self-interested behavior has a benefit for others as well as the volunteer.
Research and Methodology
Because this study seeks to develop an explanation for volunteerism that functions both generally and specifically, the research was conducted with an eye towards uncovering useful information regarding both degrees of specificity. Thus, the first step required determining which specific volunteer effort to use as a case study, in order to test the validity of the general insights gleaned from previous research on volunteerism as such; in this case the organization chosen was Teach for America, a program in which recent college graduates volunteer to teach for two years in schools across America, usually in low-income areas. Teach for America seemed an ideal object of study for a few reasons important reasons that will be outlined below.
Firstly, Teach for America is one of the most popular volunteer organizations in the country, having had over 33,000 volunteers since its establishment in 1990 (Teach for America 2012). Secondly, it has served as one of the cornerstones of the current administration's push for greater volunteerism, and as such, examining the motivations of individuals who might volunteer for Teach for America could possibly offer interesting insights into the political dimensions of volunteerism (Lahann & Reagan 2011, p. 7). Finally, Teach for America has had a somewhat problematic track record, which opens up an interesting discussion about the value of volunteerism and those instances in which volunteering helps the volunteer more than the person ostensibly receiving aid (Lahan & Reagan 2011, Fogarty 2011). Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that participation in Teach for America actually lowers the likelihood that someone will volunteer in the future, leading to further interesting questions regarding volunteerism as a social process (McAdam & Brandt 2009).
Having chosen the specific organization to use as a case study, the next step of the research required searching peer-reviewed journals for preexisting information regarding the reasons for volunteerism as such. As philanthropy in the form of volunteerism has become a more frequent topic of discussion over the last twenty years (as evidenced by Teach for America's success and the current administration's focus on service), the motivations behind volunteerism have been studied from a variety of perspectives. For this study, two especially relevant investigations into the topic came from relatively unexpected places, the journals Chemical Engineering Progress and Administrative Science Quarterly. The content of these articles will be discussed in greater detail below, but for now it suffices to note that the topic of volunteerism extends far beyond the usual realms of sociology or psychology.
Just as the object of this study is somewhat twofold, so too was the methodological approach. On the one hand, it was possible to investigate the general reasons why individuals might volunteer by examining the results of a variety of experiments on the subject, as well as theoretical insights into human behavior and decision-making. In order to determine how this related to Teach for America, however, it was necessary to consult firsthand accounts of individuals who volunteered for the organization. While these accounts did not constitute the entirety of the evidence, because one must consider firsthand reports with some bit of suspicion or at least reservation, they nevertheless contributed to this study's understanding of volunteerism. Finally, the results from both approaches were combined in an effort to determine how the reported motivations for volunteering compared to the experimental and theoretical data.
Perhaps one of the most immediately striking themes that appeared in the literature about Teach for America in particular was how problematic the organization appeared to a number of researchers. Teach for America likes to portray itself as an unequivocally beneficent organization, and, although it has undoubtedly done much good, this portrayal is deeply incongruous with the image presented by a number of researchers looking into its actual affect on the communities it assists. (As will be seen, this incongruity seems to extend to the practice of volunteerism itself, because when individuals state their reasons for volunteering, they often tend to downplay the benefits it holds for themselves while talking up the assistance they are ostensibly offering others.) Discussing some the issues researchers have found with Teach for America will be helpful in attempting to determine why people volunteer in the first place, because these issues highlight some of the underdiscussed motivations and paradigms that influence the decision to volunteer.
Perhaps the most stunning finding was that Teach for America seems to be failing, at least partially, in achieving its central goal of providing underfunded and disadvantaged schools with quality teachers. As Fogarty notes, one of the appeals of Teach for America is the idea that the program functions "as a way of enticing some of America's top students into teaching," but testing has shown that "the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers" (Fogarty 2011, p. 7). This is a stunning condemnation of Teach for America's efforts, if only because the organization presents itself as the primary salve for any and all of America's education woes. In reality, however, it seems as if the best Teach for America can say about itself is that its teachers are better than substitutes but not as good as regular, credentialed teachers (Fogarty 2011, p.7).
Furthermore, the organization seems to be failing in its main secondary goal, which is to shape "individuals who will care about education in their future jobs on Wall Street, in Washington or elsewhere outside the classroom" (Fogarty 2011, p. 7). A separate study examining survey results from Teach for America volunteers found that while volunteers did score higher "on a broad range of attitudinal items measuring civic commitment," this did not translate to actions; volunteers who completed their two years of Teach for America teaching were actually less likely to vote than drop-outs or non-matriculated applicants, and were also less likely to engage in future service or volunteer efforts (McAdam & Brandt 2009, pp. 945, 963). In addition, those Teach for America volunteers who did continue service work after their time spent teaching overwhelmingly continued that work within the Teach for America organization, such that the net result seems to be that Teach for America either discourages future volunteer work or encourages that work which benefits the organization itself more than anything else (McAdam & Brandt 2009, p. 965).
Finally, one other study on Teach for America revealed a troubling element of the organization that does not concern its educational performance, but rather the implicit political ideology it seems to support (while attempting to portray itself as an inherently apolitical project). In short, Teach for America's "explicit use of the language of business and appropriation of corporate culture in its pursuit of more equitable public education" has aligned it with explicitly neoliberal policy goals (Lahann & Mitescu 2011, p. 8). Although the authors of the study argue that Teach for America represents a kind of "progressive" neoliberalism, the fact remains that the discourse and culture perpetuated by Teach for America seems designed to encourage and support precisely that political ideology inclined to support organizations like Teach for America. Of course, organizations will always be inclined to encourage those political movements that support their goals, but once again it appears as if Teach for America's interest is focused in large part on perpetuating its own success as an organization, rather than improving America's education system.
Taken together, this literature seems to suggest that Teach for America is far more self-interested than it leads the public to believe in its own publications and statements, and this insight leads quite naturally into the literature on volunteerism as such. One of the…[continue]
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