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Inherited Altruism

How the family supports the culture of volunteering

«Subbotnik» by Ivan Vladimirov, 1923

The main channel for transmitting the value of volunteerism in Russia is from parents to children, HSE University researchers have found. Younger generations in families begin helping others as they grow up, following the example set by their elders.

Continuity in Volunteering

Volunteering has yet to become a lasting and normal feature in Russian society, which is characterized by a low level of trust. A culture of volunteering is more likely to be reproduced in families, with the example of parents serving as the mechanism by which it is transmitted. If older generations are used to helping others regularly, younger generations are likely to do the same. Parents’ active volunteering is continued by children, HSE University experts Irina Mersianova, Dmitry Malakhov and Natalya Ivanova discovered.

Their study was based on a representative survey conducted as part of the HSE University Civil Society Status Monitoring. The sample consisted of 1,200 people over the age of 18 in 43 Russian regions. Door-to-door interviewing was the method used to conduct the survey.

A Variety of Prosocial Behaviour

Volunteering is understood as voluntary unpaid help to people who are not part of one’s immediate circle (i.e. not family or relatives). The study considered four options for volunteering as dependent variables:

  1. Unorganized (a person sometimes provides help individually)
  2. Organized (activities via action groups)
  3. Helping strangers
  4. Volunteering at an organization (relatively regular practice)

Respondents were asked how often they participated in these types of volunteer activities and how actively their parents volunteered when the respondents were kids.

Since senior generations were considered, volunteering was understood to mean ‘subbotniks’ (Saturdays of unpaid community service), potato harvesting (by students or employees of public institutions), Komsomol activities and other community work during the Soviet era when such activities were encouraged by the state. These activities don’t exist in contemporary Russia. The respondents’ answers about parental volunteering reflect the today’s understanding of this phenomenon.

Family Determinism

The researchers examined the correlation between parents’ and children’s experience volunteering. It turns out to be strong with the change of the model specification and a set of demographic control variables (gender, age, type of employment, marital status, etc.).

Active volunteering experience in the older generation impacts the choices made by the younger generation. Parental example turns out to be a strong factor that determines a person’s involvement in helping others. This continuity works for different generations of Russians.

Meanwhile, active volunteering by parents is less correlated with the probability of regular volunteering (option 4) and organized volunteering (option 2). In these cases, other factors are relevant, such as the opportunity to work as an organized volunteer by virtue of one’s occupation. It looks like family continuity is the only thing serving as a foundation in this case.

Demography of Altruism

The experts considered the role of demographics when analysing intergenerational transmission of volunteer traditions. They discovered that a respondent’s gender has a low impact on volunteering. Age is weakly related to participation in both non-organized and organized volunteering. The correlation with the age is inverted U-shaped.

The researchers confirmed the rise of ‘silver volunteering’ that has previously been described in several papers. Russian senior citizens are increasingly offering unpaid help to other people (both with their money and services). The study says that the maximum likelihood of involvement in unorganized volunteering occurs at the age of 51, with 63 being the case for organized volunteering. The inverted U-shaped relationship can be explained by the fact that older people have less energy for volunteering.

Marital status has a negative correlation with volunteering. People who are married or who live with a partner have less time for community activities.

Employment status also plays a role, which is also due to the amount of spare time. Unemployed respondents are more involved in unorganized volunteering. Respondents who were housewives reported participating in organized and unorganized volunteering less often, which is likely tied to the fact that they focus most of their time and effort on family and children.

People belonging to lower social classes help others less often; they have fewer opportunities to do so.

Church attendance also impacts volunteering. People who go to church more often may be involved in various activities there, including helping others.

The Power of Example

Two complementary mechanisms explain the transmission of volunteer traditions in families. One is direct, which is through the example of parents. Older people serve as role models for young people. Children interiorize their parents’ values and adopt their prosocial behaviour. Meanwhile, growing distances (in time and space) between children and parents do not decrease volunteering activity, which remains stable.

The other path is indirect, which is considered in the context of the resource theory. Parents’ socio-economic status (education and income) and standards in their social environment play a role. People of higher socio-economic status volunteer more often. Children inherit their parents’ social resources and are included in the relevant normative context.

Taking into account the lack of wide public acknowledgement of volunteering in Russia, the impact of parents’ example is more probable. According to the researchers, family volunteer programmes need to be developed, which could help parents pass their experiences to their children.


Authors of the study:
Irina Mersianovaа, Director of the HSE Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Non-Profit Sector
Dmitry Malakhov, Senior Lecturer at the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences Department of Applied Economics
Natalya Ivanova, Senior Research Fellow at the HSE Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Non-Profit Sector
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, July 23, 2019