This workshop proposes to bring together social scientists and public policy experts working in two important research areas: the study of volunteerism and the study of social dilemmas.

This workshop proposes to bring together social scientists and public policy experts working in two important research areas: the study of volunteerism and the study of social dilemmas. Although clearly related, focusing as they do on actions designed to improve the general welfare of society, these two domains have yet to be integrated in a theoretical or empirical way. By bringing together scholars who have studied “work for the common good” from different perspectives, we hope to begin this integration, leading to theoretical and practical advances, for science and for public policy in Australia.

In the last decade, both in Australia and internationally, government expenditure for welfare and other community services has been reduced, often drastically. As a consequence, organisations that provide services (and those relying on the provision of these services) have become increasingly dependent on the contributions, work, and continuing commitment of volunteers. While recognizing that transferring the costs of the provision of these public goods and services to individuals (and away from governments) is a contentious issue, it has been a societal norm that action on behalf of others is to be regarded as a moral and/or political imperative. Further, such actions have the long-term consequence of creating stronger social cohesion, a point underlined in the massive response of volunteers to the September 11 attacks in New York. Therefore, it is important to have a systematic understanding of the factors that encourage citizens to provide services to those in need, and to make themselves available to community organizations, even when governmental supports and control are available, but especially when such resources have been reduced.

Despite any moral imperative, however, a large literature suggests that people often act explicitly in their own self-interest – and not for the common good – even to the extent that publicly-owned or shared resources are depleted. Such problems are known as social dilemmas – these are defined as incentive structures in which willingness to contribute to the collective good (e.g. public radio; blood banks), or to refrain from the over-use of common resources (e.g. water; fisheries) is over-ridden by individual self-interest. Research on social dilemmas over the last several decades has focused on ways to reframe or reorganize dilemmas (by making cooperative action equivalent to self-interest through emphasizing common group identity, for example). Strengthening social norms or trust in institutions or authorities and increasing awareness of the problems associated with depleted resources (such as blood banks or water supplies) or with a lack of volunteers have also been promoted as strategies. Such solutions target the collective nature of the problem.

Researchers who study volunteerism (and, in particular, motivations to volunteer) use a more individualistic strategy to analyse the problem of inaction toward the common good. In focusing on the specific reasons and purposes that individuals have for their volunteerism, these researchers have come to the conclusion that this activity has the potential to satisfy both self-interested (egoistic) and other-interested or collective (altruistic) goals simultaneously. Satisfaction with volunteer work and duration as a volunteer have been linked to the extent to which volunteers actually have their goals (both personal and collective) satisfied through their activities. Recently, work on volunteerism has been taking into account the links between volunteers and the organizations for which they work, suggesting that such concepts as value congruence and organizational social identity may be important.

A key feature of the proposed workshop will be to explore the theoretical and practical implications of integrating these two perspectives; that is, the social psychology of volunteering, and the more multi-disciplinary perspective of research on social dilemmas. By bringing together experts from these two domains of research, there is the potential for an important synthesis of ideas.