Rubbish Idea

1st December, 2007

Dear Economist,
I am often asked to sponsor various “a-thons” for charitable purposes. The range of events is endless, from bowl-a-thons to skip-a-thons, and of no inherent value to anyone. Would it not be far more beneficial if the events were more creditable in nature? For example, arranging a rubbish-a-thon whereby individuals are sponsored by the hour for clearing a riverbank of rubbish. Surely the end result would be increased sponsorship being raised; a cleaner environment; and an increased sense of achievement.

Dear Jenny,

The risk is that your proposal would choke off the supply of willing volunteers. You seem sanguine: volunteers would, you surmise, enjoy a sense of achievement. I am not so sure. Charity is a wonderful thing, but let us not blind ourselves to the fact that a lot of volunteering is about showing off.

The economists Jeffrey Carpenter and Caitlin Knowles Myers studied the behaviour of volunteer firefighters who were offered modest financial incentives. Many were motivated by these incentives, but some were not.

Curiously, the ones who were not motivated by money were also the ones who had bought special vanity plates indicating that they were community volunteers. It seems that these volunteers were motivated by a desire to look good, and did not want the idea of a cash incentive to sully their reputation.

I speculate that your approach might make “a-thons” less showy and therefore less useful for signalling altruism. If your idea is really so good, why has it not already caught on?

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