December 3, 2012 12:02 am

Free thinking

illustration by Nick Lowndes©Nick Lowndes

I am consistently being told by business school deans that the new generation of MBA graduates are different from their predecessors. Their interests lie not in high salaries and working for prestigious companies, but in working for start-ups and becoming entrepreneurs. Most of all they want – horrible phrase – to “give back” to their communities.

To be honest, I have never been convinced by the ­“giving back” thing, either in terms of money or time. But this year I thought I would give it a whirl and become a volunteer as part of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

One of the things that interested me during my stint of ticket-scanning, direction-giving and general smile duty was why quite so many people had decided to volunteer.

The motivation behind volunteering had been puzzling me for more than a decade, since I first interviewed a very thoughtful professor from Harvard Business School who had written lots of case studies on the subject. The reason he posed that same question was that he believed the corporate world would really like to harness the enthusiasm that comes with volunteering to benefit the company, and make money. What he was saying quite candidly was, how can companies get their employees to work for free.

Why is it that some people are prepared to give their weekends to delivering food for the elderly or digging gardens yet as soon as it is time to leave the office, they are out of the door without a second thought?

Back to my fellow volunteers then, and what motivated them. To begin with, there were the genuine amateur athletes and sports coaches, who wanted to work with those they respected. As a confirmed armchair sports fan I simply valued these people from afar.

Then there were the volunteers who worked for corporate sponsors of London 2012, who were given extra time off to volunteer. No problems with their motives then.

There were also a bunch of civil servants and government workers who got extra time off for voluntary work, and a good number of teachers, who slotted the Olympics into their long summer holidays.

For a lot of the younger participants there was simply the need to put something impressive on their CVs in a frightful jobs market. And then there was a group – albeit a relatively small one – who thought it would be a chance to see some of the sporting activities for free.

But there was also a group of people like me for whom none of the above reasons really applied. Many of them were people who used their rest days during the Olympics to scuttle back into the office to clear mountains of paperwork as well as not using up too much of their precious holiday allowance.

A sector on the rise

Over the past 10 years the third sector in the UK – comprising charity and voluntary organisations – has seen a 23 per cent increase in the number of employees

So why put ourselves through it? When I thought about my motives I found it came down to three things: nosiness, belligerence and self-interest.

To begin with, I wanted to know what it was all about, how it all worked. I could not help feeling that volunteering for London 2012 could be 10 days of hell, but then it might be something really fantastic. And if it was fantastic I would be really annoyed that I had missed out on it.

Second, and more important, I was fed up with listening to people moan about what a disaster it would be: that it would be hugely expensive and massively disruptive. The national British pastime of Brit-bashing even reached as far as US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who questioned whether London was capable of staging a successful Olympic Games.

Third, I thought that if the Olympics could help improve the economy of London and the UK, then my life might be more enjoyable as a result.

So what can businesses and business schools learn from all this about generating enthusiasm in the workplace? One lesson might be to only employ people who spend their spare time enjoying your products. Not a bad idea if you sell computer games or you are a film studio, but it is hard to see how this would work in an insurance company. An idea that is clearly working in this economy is to persuade people to work for your company without pay in order to build a CV – interns, they are called. But this is surely just short-term motivation in play.

Persuading people that they would be missing out on something if they did not volunteer their time might be more generally applicable. But surely the real skill has to be to persuade people that there is something in it for them? Share option schemes are the most obvious example of this, but they hold little lustre as share prices flounder.

Of course, there may have been another reason for the rush of Olympic volunteering – the natty little uniforms in red and purple that we got to wear. As we finished our final shift, the trainers were selling on eBay for about £50 a pair.

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