Selfish Volunteerism

I spent four hours last Saturday working to support a cause I believe in.

No, I wasn’t out serving soup to the homeless, nor was I hitting the campaign trail promoting a candidate (though I did do that online.)

No, I spent my day showing kids and adults how to play HeroClix at the Phillipsburg Mall in Phillipsburg, N.J.. Along with two friends from my gaming group, I volunteered to run demos showcasing Wiz Kids Games’ popular super-hero miniatures game. Between the three of us, we ran around a dozen games, and managed help sell out every booster and starter pack of Clix in the mall (an accomplishment that was aided by the West Coast Longshoreman strike, which left the stores in the mall low on supplies).

HeroClix is an excellent game, and WizKids is a darn good company. They reward their fans for putting on the demos with free merchandise. The value of the merchandise doesn’t come close to covering the time we invested, but it’s about more than free Clix. That recognition is nice, but I was motivated by other desires. And not one of them was driven by altruism.

HeroClix encourages kids (and adults for that matter) to exercise their minds with some basic math, encourages strategic thinking, and bolsters the industries of comic book collecting and gaming. These are all things I believe in and want to see more of, thus it’s personally worth it to me to spend a day in the mall teaching kids how to play.

Another selfish reason for agreeing to demo? Hanging out with kids. As a future dad, I need as much experience with kids as I can get, and just as importantly, viewing the game (and the world) from a kid’s perspective is invigorating.

This, to me, is how volunteerism should be. It should not be compelled by the government or demanded by a school. It should be something you want to do, something that you believe in, and something that benefits you as much as the cause you aid.

I don’t believe that volunteerism, as recently advocated by President Bush should be about serving your fellow man, nor should it be based on some a desire to drown your soul in the teaming collective will of your neighbors. And above all else, I do not believe that people should be damned — that their efforts should be ridiculed — for helping a cause they want to help. For me, the pinnacle of volunteerism is not, as an altruistic, Kantian creed demands, helping someone you don’t know, while working for a cause you don’t support, motivated only by a sense of selfless duty.

I could make arguments that what I did today did more good than dishing out soup in a New York homeless shelter. After all, by getting people interested in the game, I drove sales of a product they wanted. Those sales helped the bottom line of the stores in the mall, helping people keep their jobs. And it helped WizKids expand the popularity of the game, insuring that their own production would increase, and that they would have funds to develop new products, the manufacture of which would employ even more people. In the end, I helped people put food on their tables, not through alms, but through an honest day’s work.

I could say that. But I won’t. Ultimately I did what I did for selfish reasons … I did what I did because I wanted to. I think most volunteerism is based on this concept, although its something folks never talk about, indeed, seem to actively avoid talking about. Because darn it, doing something you like means you’re getting something in return, and that’s just not right. Exactly why it’s not right, no one can exactly say. Some try by pointing to the heavens and saying “Because He said so” … but even that doesn’t ring true — after all, if you’re doing something you hate because God told you to do so, you’re still being motivated by a selfish desire — namely the selfish desire not to burn in Hell for all eternity.

Do I think that volunteerism is, in and of itself, a bad thing? Heck no. I’ve done a fair amount of volunteering in my life (my favorite would be raising Seeing Eye dogs for the blind, but I’m a sucker for a Labrador puppy…). It’s just that I question the knee-jerk, “ain’t that grand?” reaction that so many people have to it, especially when that reaction leads to improper mandatory volunteerism enforced by the state. I also flat out reject the concept of selfless volunteerism that so many folks espouse as well as the idea that volunteerism is inherently superior to work (but that’s a column for another day)

When it comes right down to it, I want people to be proud — yes proud — that they supported a cause they wanted to support, and that they got something out of it, regardless of whether that something is a warm fuzzy feeling, a booster pack of HeroClix, or the happy, wet kiss of a Labrador puppy.