A lot of the behavioural biases that prevent us from achieving our goals have to do with time. We lament not having enough time to get everything done, and then spend hours binge-watching cooking shows. We all have that important task – like applying to university, or filling in our taxes, signing up for our pension, or clearing out the garage – that we’ll always ‘do tomorrow’, or ‘start next weekend’. Very often when we reach the end of a year we realise that we’ve not lived up to our expectations, and we don’t know where the time went – which might be why we make so many resolutions.
Our engagement in social action – volunteering and giving money to charity, or just helping other people out, is vulnerable to the same biases. Many of us have the best of intentions to volunteer, but we never get around to actually signing up and turning up for an organisation we care about. When we’re busy with work, family or social commitments, fitting volunteering in can feel like too much of a squeeze. This sentiment is echoed in exploratory work we have conducted with potential volunteers.
‘Present bias’ is a common finding in behavioural science – we can put off indefinitely something we have every expectation of doing because we overweight the immediate costs of committing time, compared to the longer term benefits to ourselves and others.
This is particularly important when we think about volunteering. Research by Cassie Mogilner and colleagues found that spending time helping others – for example through participation in a social action programme – significantly increases your sense of ‘time affluence’. So if you give up your time for other people, you actually feel more able to handle your own commitments. What’s more, volunteering might be addictive – in our research, we find that people who are randomly assigned to do some volunteering at school, are more likely to want to learn more about how they can volunteer again, compared to those who wanted to volunteer in the first place but weren’t selected.
Figure 1: Stated willingness to volunteer again (for both community volunteering opportunities and opportunities in other countries)
Just as time can be against us, it can also be our ally, if we plan when we reach out to potential volunteers, as well as how.
This means picking a time to ask people to give that makes it easiest for them, or when they’re already more inclined to make a donation. In the United States, almost a third of all donations happen in December, because many people are thinking about their taxes, as well as the ‘season of giving’. Our work with Remember a Charity – whose annual RAC week starts in a few weeks – uses the will writing process as a key time to ask people to think about leaving a legacy gift, because they’re already thinking about legacies more generally. For payroll giving, including a signup form in people’s induction pack when they join the company, seems to boost giving.
Recently, we’ve been thinking about two groups who might especially benefit from well timed nudges into social action – young people and the over 50’s. From our work evaluating the Cabinet Office’s Youth Social Action programme, we know that a small amount of volunteering leads to more volunteering later on, and that there are a host of benefits for the charity as well as for the volunteer themselves in terms of empathy, problem solving, and community mindedness, as well as employability. Other research by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton finds that giving can increase subjective wellbeing. DfE’s guidance that all 16-19 programmes should include a youth social action component therefore has huge potential here, but must be handled correctly. Another branch of research shows that extrinsic motivation or mandating can crowd out people’s intrinsic motivation to do the right thing.
For the last year we’ve been working with Nesta through the Centre for Social Action in their efforts to encourage more volunteering among the over 50’s. Although this group already volunteer a lot (more than 60% according to the Community and Life Survey), there is still untapped potential, and evidence suggests that it improves wellbeing and social connections.
This age group has many touch points with government: pension withdrawal and retirement are two times at which this group routinely interacts with government. One inflection point that may be underutilised is the time when someone becomes eligible for their free bus pass. Offering volunteering opportunities at a time when this group are receiving something desirable may tap into their desire to reciprocate and give back.