The Volunteer’s Dilemma


There are likely many, many reasons why relatively few people volunteer in our community, or at least far fewer than what I would like to see. I came across the concept of the very aptly named “Volunteer’s Dilemma” while researching academic papers on the health benefits of volunteerism.

According to Wikipedia:

“The volunteer’s dilemma game models a situation in which each of X players faces the decision of either making a small sacrifice from which all will benefit, or free riding.

One example is a scenario in which the electricity has gone out for an entire neighborhood. All inhabitants know that the electricity company will fix the problem as long as at least one person calls to notify them, at some cost. If no one volunteers, the worst possible outcome is obtained for all participants. If any one person elects to volunteer, the rest benefit by not doing so.

A public good is only produced if at least one person volunteers to pay an arbitrary cost. In this game, bystanders decide independently on whether to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the group. Because the volunteer receives no benefit, there is a greater incentive for free riding than to sacrifice oneself for the group. If no one volunteers, everyone loses. The social phenomena of the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility heavily relate to the volunteer’s dilemma.”

In the context of promoting volunteerism in our community, this model provides some interesting insights:


  1. The perception or mindset exists that the act of volunteering comes at a personal cost or sacrifice with no benefit to the volunteer encourages people to be free riders for the public goods produced by others.
  2. To say that there is no benefit derived from the public good by the volunteer is a bit of an exaggeration (i.e. the volunteer obviously needs the electricity as much as everyone else), the point is valid that the benefits of the public good are not isolated to just the volunteer.
  3. The personal cost or sacrifice is often just the volunteer’s time, unlike other examples that are life & death in nature (i.e. military service).
  4. An individual’s choice on how to spend their free time will be selfishly driven by the amount of personal utility (i.e. happiness or satisfaction) perceived to be gained by available alternatives (i.e. watch TV, gaming, other leisure activities vs. volunteering).
  5. Educating individuals on the benefits (personal utility) of volunteering will hopefully change the perception of relative personal utility and hopefully their choices on investing their leisure time.
  6. Each public good will also have a different personal utility for members of the volunteer pool.  In order to maximize personal utility, a recruiting strategy is needed that recognizes this and places its emphasis on recruiting volunteers who feel most passionate about a specific cause.


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