by Anne Schink
My past blog on volunteer motivation focused on the traditional understanding of what attracts and sustains volunteers. This blog expands on the work in a book entitled Drive by Daniel Pink. It’s a fascinating study of how people engage in work that they enjoy. While focused largely on business, his ideas are relevant to the nonprofit world as well.
Daniel Pink describes drive as having three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy provides an element of self-determination that is personally satisfying. Volunteers like to feel that they can shape their volunteer assignment in a way that is comfortable for them. That may mean adjusting your schedule, carving out tasks that the volunteer is confident in doing, adapting the way a task is completed to accommodate a disability or limited skills, or allowing a team of volunteers to find their own way of accomplishing the tasks.
Mastery includes a curiosity about learning new things, a willingness to stretch for the sake of gaining new understanding. At the same time, and this is important for managers of volunteers, mastery means the ability to complete a task with confidence, pleasure, and comfort. Asking a volunteer to do something they are not comfortable doing or that requires skills above their level leads to a distressed and vanishing volunteer. A volunteer who expressed interest in learning a new skill needs training, coaching, and support in order achieve the mastery that brings satisfaction. As Pink says, consider the Goldilocks principle: not too easy, not too hard, not too big, not too small, but just right.
Purpose is the third leg of the tripod that provides the context for autonomy and mastery. Volunteers need to know their work is tied to a purpose that has value to them and the people they intend to help. We all want to make a difference and it isn’t always easy for the volunteer to make the connection. As the manager of volunteers you can make a big contribution to your volunteers by connecting their individual tasks to the larger mission of the organization.
In organizations that have experimented with structures that allow for much greater latitude in creating work environments that are worker friendly and less formal in structure, these three elements have created dramatic changes in the way that workplaces are structured. Later in his book Pink describes a ROWE (results-only work environment). This means leaving many of the details of how work gets done to the team doing the work. It means letting go of a lot of control that has dominated business enterprises since the industrial revolution.
Organizations using volunteers would do well to learn these lessons as well. Businesses have a different bottom line from nonprofit organizations, so making these changes should be easier for nonprofits to make, if they haven’t already operated in this type of structure. Sometimes it is hard for organizations with a history of using volunteers in specific ways to let go of their way of doing things. But as the coordinator of volunteers you are in a unique position of trying new ideas that bring satisfaction to today’s volunteers as they complete the work they have been asked to do.