23 September 2013 | Volunteering | Back to Blog

Where’s the Money?

“Where’s the money?” my inner factory owner squealed! It was my first day on the job. But this time I was doing for free work I had been bountifully paid for before. I kept thinking of how useful cash is. I thought of the purchasing power that this day of volunteering would have robbed me of; the bills that need paying; that holiday I’ve been promising myself but haven’t been able to afford. We quantify so much monetarily – so much is for sale. The phone started ringing. It wouldn’t stop for the next eight hours. The charity I was volunteering for – Médecins Sans Frontières – had just started a big campaign. I groaned under the weight of my own stupidity.

As my morning blues abandoned me my thinking slowly changed. I had been worried my work would be sloppy as I wasn’t getting paid. Instead there was a purity about doing a job for its own sake. I had a feeling of generosity that was rewarding. Most of all I was happy to be working together with dedicated people on a good cause. It occurred to me that my time was not for sale. It was being offered in a different kind of exchange.

This change reminded me of a story I had read about an Israeli day-care centre. The day-care centre was having problems with parents turning up late to pick up their children. In response they decided to introduce a fine.  The bizarre result was that late pick-ups increased. The fine had turned into a fee. The moral desire to do the right thing and the risk of disapproval by other parents and staff worked as a greater incentive to turn up on time than a few Shekels. But what’s really curious about this story (it’s in Michael Sandel’s new book – What Money Can’t Buy) is what happens next: The day-care centre tried to go back to the old system. But parents kept turning up late in the same numbers as when they had been fined. Once courtesy and moral concerns had been marketized through the fine – had been put on sale – it was impossible to go back to the old values. This story really resonates. As Sandel puts it “do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?” What’s disturbing about the story is that once we have replaced moral and civic duties with financial ones – once we use money as the final arbiter – it seems impossible to change back.

But during my day of volunteering it did change back. My motivation switched from being based solely on cash to one based on an ethos of working together. Volunteering works as an antidote to marketization. Giving your time for free is such a reversal of market values it undermines them. It encourages us to quietly reconnect with moral and civic acts and to invest in them again. This is achieved through a shared experience rather than any ear bashing or soaring rhetoric. Reclaiming this ground on a personal and cultural scale – ground that has become unfashionable to occupy in the last thirty years – is provocative and radical. It is this cultural shift and change in consensus that has the potential, arguably more so than formal regulations, to make our markets more humane and equitable again.