Monday, December 12, 2011

Billing your time makes you less likely to volunteer your time

There are lots of ways that people can improve their community.  Two of the most common are volunteering and giving donations.  The National Public Radio station in Austin frequently airs public service announcements from organizations that are recruiting people to volunteer their time for a good cause.  In addition, a few times yearly, that same NPR station holds fund-raising drives to raise money for its operations. 

For organizations that rely on people’s time and money, it is important to understand the factors that affect whether people will be willing to give of their time or their resources.

An interesting set of studies in the April, 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Sanford DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer looked at an influence of people’s work life on whether they will volunteer their time.  These researchers were interested in whether having to fill out time sheets to bill your time to clients would affect whether you would then be willing to give your time as a volunteer.  The paper reported both observational and experimental studies that addressed this question.

In an observational study, the researchers contacted recent law school graduates right after graduation.  Lawyers are a good test population, because they typically have to bill their time to clients in 6-minute increments.  In this study, the respondents filled out surveys both right after graduation and also 5-months later after they had been working.  About 2/3 of the respondents were in jobs where they had to bill their time.  In both surveys, participants rated how willing they would be to volunteer their time.  In addition, in the second survey participants rated whether they would prefer to paint some rooms in their own house or to pay someone else to do it and whether they would prefer to give their time or their money to a favorite charity. 

In this study, there was no difference in respondents’ ratings of willingness to volunteer time at the start of the study, regardless of whether they went off to jobs where they did or did not have to bill their time.  After 5 months, though, those who had to bill their time rated themselves as less likely to volunteer their time and more likely to give money than time to charities than those people who did not have to bill their time.  It could be that billing your time just makes you less willing to use your time for everything.  That does not seem to be the case, though, because respondents who billed their time were actually slightly less likely than those who do not bill their time to want to pay someone to paint rooms of their house rather than do it themselves. 

In four additional experiments, the researchers looked at this effect in a laboratory setting.  The studies started by having participants play the role of consultants and had them make a number of business personnel decisions.  In this task, the personnel decisions were being made for different groups within a fictitious company, and some participants were asked to fill out a time sheet to bill their time to these various groups.  The other participants did not bill their time.

After doing this task, people were given a volunteer opportunity.  Across studies, participants had the chance to help a campus group stuff envelopes for a mailing, write letters to sick children, or answer questions on a website that would ultimately donate funds to feed the hungry.  People who had to bill their time in the task were much less likely to volunteer than were those who did not have to bill their time.  Measures taken in these studies suggested that it was not that people did not find the volunteer task rewarding, they simply chose not to participate in it.  Obviously, the effects of tracking your time in a laboratory experiment are likely to be short-lived, but for people (like lawyers) who have to do this regularly for years, thinking about time as money may become a habit.

These studies demonstrate the unintended ways that one aspect of your life can influence another.   Businesses do not make their employees fill out detailed time sheets because they want them to treat all of their time as a commodity.  Yet, it seems as though people get trapped into this mode of thinking.

An interesting question for the future is whether becoming aware of the relationship between billing your time and volunteering can affect your behavior.  That is, we could inform lawyers who bill their time that they have probably become less likely to volunteer their time just because of the way they keep track of their time for clients.  Would that information make those lawyers more likely to volunteer in the future?