Why am I writing this?

We’ve become a little more about me, and a little less about us.

Sit with it as you read for a minute.

  • Have you become a little more about you?
  • Is it about your work pattern, your life, your goals, your growth and development?
  • How does that compare to where you were at 5 years ago?
  • And does the work you do, who you do it with, and the impact you have together, still mean something?

I suspect the answers go along the lines of ‘a bit more about me’ and ‘my work still matters’. Good landing. Because being only about you is hard to work with…

Work is not an individual, purely transactional pursuit. It is not your personal agency (freedom) in isolation, it’s about a group of individuals, making up teams and groups of colleagues, that create cultures and organisations. And do some great work – together!

But – it’s hard to shake that we are a bit less likely to show up than we were before – For other people (in-person, no way!), less likely to vote (especially if we don’t have to), to donate (to charitable organisations, causes – and not just because they raised money often ‘in-person’) – effectively we are less likely to ‘put our body on the line’.

We are, unfortunately, just a little emptier than before (even though all the talk is about how much richer our lives are).

It feels like COVID-19 rebased us, stripped us back to our core. Back to individual survival. Then survival of the group around me (family, friends), then maybe …maybe…neighbours and community. But, some of us stopped in a pretty narrow sphere, well before neighbours and community, even though we intellectually appreciate that belonging and inclusion matter, given that we are inherently social creatures.

I saw one reference point, a couple of days ago, that outlined why Maslow’s Hierarchy may well need to move ‘Belongingness’ from the middle to be ‘the foundation’ pillar i.e., the bottom of the hierarchy should ‘Belonging’ because it matters so much to us. Right now, the model says more basic needs around ensuring we exist (food, water, shelter) are the starting block.

I’m not here to argue the relevancy of a 1940’s model, but we know:

  • We can’t live without food, water, or shelter
  • There are huge fallout and consequences of being isolated and alone, and
  • We well know the conversation on Psychological Safety, Inclusion and Psychosocial Risks is bubbling under the surface of workplaces and spaces everywhere.

What’s the psychology at play?

At the simplest level, COVID, made us collectively face our possible demise, and this led to a rethink. But there’s still a few other important concepts – reciprocity, altruism, and social proofing – but they seem less powerful than they once were.

What are those things? In a speedy flash back:

Reciprocity is doing something for someone else, and know you’ll get something back. There is a mutual benefit. That’s not bad at all.

Altruism is being selfless and helping others without the expectation of getting something back. While there is no immediate benefit expected, it feels good.

And Social Proofing is referencing others to understand the right behaviour for a certain circumstance.

So, how did they get me to ‘empty volunteerism’?

What is Empty volunteerism?

It feels good to volunteer – with mutual benefit, or just to do something good for someone else. And when we see volunteering, by people we respect, we join. But, right now, we join differently, than we used to – and it is weaker.

Empty volunteerism is my observation of people saying ‘yes’ to something that they are not actually committed to, but say yes to it for optics of support, or maybe even to feel good, or in the expectation of reciprocity. But, when the work or commitment they’ve volunteered for is to be done, they are vacant – they don’t actually have the time, interest or capacity to follow through and get it done.

Now, I am not that tough, nor harshly judging imperfection. ALL of us, as humans, have moments of empty volunteerism – where another human asks for a hand, and we say yes – but we don’t follow-up, don’t genuinely get behind it, don’t fo what we said we would. We are busy, complex, have our own unique lives and circumstances.

Once off, people get it. A few times, with wild circumstances, might be okay. But if it is over and over, it becomes what you are known for – and the best people see through it.

And my hypothesis, and observation and experience, is we have become much happier to take part in empty volunteerism post COVID-19.

Register for an event, not show up.

Say we will lend a hand, go silent.

And it sort of makes sense, even though it’s a shame.

Just this week, I asked for some volunteer help on social media. Lots of action. Reposting, likes, reactions. Not many comments. No one acting on the very clear call (even just to find out more). This was a follow-up ask, people knew it was coming. Early on people expressed some interest in being involved in the near future, but now that the time is here, crickets.

It is not that we don’t still need volunteers – we do need them more than ever. To do voluntary work – make things, shape things, openly share ideas, contribute to further projects, add expertise and so much more.

But – we need people to be a volunteer that actually delivers. If you are in it, give it everything you can! Be where you said you would. Acknowledge and deliver what you put your hand up for

How do we own a space we volunteer in, to stop the rise of empty volunteerism?

It is ok not to do everything, all of the time, for everyone, but you do need to deliver what you promised. Do these 3 things to be a good volunteer, not an empty one.

  1. Find your lane. Voluntary effort is just that, voluntary. Work out what you want to get – at the psychological level. Is it reciprocity, altruism? What are the social proof points? And are you in a lane where you connect to the topic at hand?
  2. Carve out a space for manageable impact. You can’t do it all, so don’t promise the world if you can only deliver a city. But, if you promise a city, deliver it.
  3. Hold ourselves and others to account. We need to be better at this – holding each other to what we said we’d do – even in voluntary roles. 

Good luck, find your space and get back out there with generosity.

Make someone else’s’ day, and maybe even your own.

We do way better together, than we do alone.

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