What makes people give? University of Minnesota psychologist Mark Snyder, PhD, asked himself that very question when he first began researching volunteerism. Snyder had a hard time thinking of reasons to volunteer, while reasons not to volunteer seemed to come easily. Could it be a question of nature vs. nurture?

Snyder has been trying to discover what exactly motivates people to volunteer for over 20 years. Through their research, he and his colleagues have identified 5 primary motivators:

Values. Volunteering satisfies personal values or humanitarian concerns, and for some, religious beliefs.

Community concern. Volunteers often feel compelled to help groups they feel a personal connection to.

Esteem enhancement. Volunteering can make you feel better about yourself as a person.

Understanding. Some people volunteer to gain understanding about cultures beyond their own.

Personal development. Some volunteers are looking to build new relationships or further their career.

The identification of these primary motivations provides insight into why some people are more philanthropic. But what steers them toward a specific motivator? Have they been taught to place value on community involvement? Have they witnessed others excel in their careers as a result of volunteer work? Or is it more basic than that? Are some people born with a desire to help others engraved in their genes?

Consider identical twins; are they alike because of genetic similarity, or because they have been raised in the same conditions? Studies show that twins exhibit striking similarities, even when they have been raised apart (genetics). But these studies also showed identical twins are never exactly alike in all respects (nurture).

So is it nature or nurture? The answer is, we just don’t know. The age old argument has never been settled, but it is commonly believed that both genetics and environment play a role in shaping who a person becomes; nature provides us with abilities and traits, but nurture shapes those traits as we learn and mature.

– Dana Johnson

Sources: American Psychological Association,
Photo: High Cotton Style