“People who engaged in these small acts of kindness, for instance, were about twice as likely to volunteer compared to those who did not, and were 29 per cent more likely to make cash donations” (Strong Link Between Simple Acts of Kindness and Volunteering, Donating: Study, Sherlyn Seah).
If doubling the national volunteerism rate – from 35 per cent in 2016 to 70 per cent in 2023, articulated by Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Grace Fu in June last year – remains a goal of the Singapore government, then the finding of the Individual Giving Study (IGS) by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) that only 29 per cent of Singaporeans volunteer (compared to 35 per cent in 2016, marking a drop of six percentage points) feels like an unfortunate step backwards, especially when our understandings of volunteer motivations, of variations in volunteer patterns and especially explanations for the recent dips in 2014 and 2018, as well as of the interventions needed to shift individuals with intents to volunteer to actual volunteerism seem to remain limited. The low national volunteerism rate is even more curious, furthermore, in a country where school-based community service is mandated.
NVPC’s conclusion that small acts of kindness or service – such as returning trays and giving up seats on public transportation – is “catalyst to much more significant, sustainable, and impactful giving behaviour” (TODAY, May 16) is not surprising, even though volunteerism decisions are likely to be more complex. With the intent to find out how to get more Singaporeans to volunteer, in addition to demographic and socio-economic factors such as age, religion, and income or wealth, other individual reasons could include one’s past involvement in school, familial relationships, and personal choice of causes or organisations. Starting with the IGS observation of the growing trend of former volunteers ceasing their involvement, for instance, could offer greater analytic depth.
And given that we appear to have hit a ceiling of national volunteerism in 2012 and 2016 – when the rate was 32 and 35 per cent respectively – individual reasons should be studied with community or even cultural explanations. In particular, beyond large-scale events which may have mobilised volunteer en masse – the IGS was not able to account for the subsequent dips in 2014 and in 2018. Comparing those who volunteer to those who do not, especially those who are within the same life-stage or age-group and therefore are more likely to share the same school, work, familial, or life commitments, what in their environment could relate to their volunteer intent or involvement? Changes in life events, priorities, or expectations? Mobilisation through community organisations, places of worship, or even the workplace? Or just geographical proximity to social service agencies which (potential) volunteers care about? Unless there is a clearer picture including individual and community traits, most interventions to raise volunteer rates would struggle.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.