Volunteers are motivated serve for many reasons. Researchers have hypothesized for decades what motivates people to give of their time and energy to help other people. The most common suggestion is altruism, or the selfless desire to help another person. But, others have suggested people serve to fulfill unmet needs or because of benefits they receive from their efforts. Therefore, determining volunteer motivation can help volunteer leaders in many ways. Once a leader understands what an individual is expecting in a volunteer role, she can work to meet those needs. This can protect volunteers from experiencing burnout and quitting.
In 1998 a group of researchers set out to determine what motivates individuals to volunteer. Their studies uncovered six reasons people volunteer; six roles that volunteering plays in people’s lives.
Six Reasons Volunteers are Motivated
Volunteering often serves as an opportunity for individuals to express their value of caring for others. This would be the volunteer motivation most closely associated with altruism. Consequently, Christians might place the concept of selfless service in this category.
Some serve in order to gain new learning experiences. This includes a chance to exercise knowledge, skills, and abilities. Understanding involves self-discovery or a way to increase self-learning in a person’s life. For example, an individual may volunteer at a homeless shelter in order to learn about the experience of the homeless.
Volunteering might give some people an opportunity to engage socially. This means some will serve for fellowship with friends. These valued relations might also view volunteering as important, prompting service. As an example, a single person in a new city might serve somewhere in order to meet people and make friends.
Career-related benefits are another motivation for volunteers. A person could gain valuable career-beneficial skills and experience, or connections through volunteering. For example, serving while in high school could help a person gain entry to their school of choice.
The protective motivation is a little more complicated. Researchers found that some volunteers serve as a way to alleviate guilt or to address one’s own personal problems. Some may decide to volunteer because they feel more fortunate than others. As an example, a person who struggled with their family growing up may feel inclined to serve families in need.
One last reason volunteers are motivated is for enhancement. Enhancement is the opposite of protective. While some serve to alleviate or address negative internal feelings, others serve to enhance positive feelings. This might include the desire to serve to increase self-esteem, self-development, or as a way to be a more positive person overall.
What about Altruism?
Some might struggle with the concept of identifying volunteer motivation. You might think that selfless service is the only reason a person ideally gives their time and energy to volunteer. Admitting motivations other than pure selflessness can feel wrong in some way. But, the good news is researchers admit that volunteer motivation is complicated and a person often serves with multiple motivations. On top of this, these motivations may change after service begins. For example, a person may volunteer to enhance career benefits, but find that volunteer fills a social need.
If you’re a volunteer leader, what would happen if you began to consider the reasons individuals sign up to serve with your organization? It may change how you pitch volunteering or even train new recruits. Also, understanding volunteer motivation may change how you interact and follow up with volunteers. For example, a leader could offer various challenges to those volunteering looking for understanding or enhancement. Therefore, thinking through why volunteers are motivated to serve may influence how you lead them. Consequently, if you work with or lead volunteers, considering their motivation may change everything you do while working with them.
References: Clary, E. G., & Orenstein, L. (1991). The amount and effectiveness of help: The relationship of motives and abilities to helping behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(1), 58-64. 10.1177/0146167291171009
Clary, E. G., Snyder, M., Ridge, R. D., Copeland, J., Stukas, A. A., Haugen, J., & Miene, P. (1998). Understanding and assessing the motivations of volunteers: A functional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1516-1530. 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.526