Re-Thinking Volunteer Motivation

by Anne Schink

At the recent Encore Leadership Summit I did a presentation on volunteer motivation: “What Lights Them Up and What Makes Them Glow.” Recently I read a new book called Drive by Daniel H. Pink that changed a lot of what I think about volunteer motivation. He argues that most of what we believe about motivation comes out of the industrial model. Most experts believed that motivation was driven by carrots and sticks. While this may have been true of boring, repetitive, or dangerous jobs, the whole subject has been re-evaluated in recent years.

Author Pink notes that motivation has two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation applies to those situations where the satisfaction comes from external rewards—pay, benefits, recognition and bonuses. Intrinsic motivation focuses on the internal factors that bring satisfaction to the individual. This doesn’t mean a volunteer who is intrinsically motivated doesn’t need recognition, but it does mean that recognition becomes a form of feedback and appreciation, rather than a carrot held out as a reason to complete a task. Pink’s research demonstrates that people who are internally driven to succeed are significantly more effective in the long run that those who are motivated by some carrot or stick. I think that most volunteer managers would agree with this observation. People who volunteer usually do so because of a personal connection or passion for the organization, its mission, and the people it serves.

It reminds me of a friend of mine who said of a volunteer job she was doing: “You couldn’t pay me to do this job!” The key is that external rewards may work in the short term, but they are no substitute for the internal satisfaction that comes from doing a job well because of an internal drive towards performance, excellence, and accomplishment.

In the lexicon of traditional volunteer management literature, volunteers are motivated by achievement, power, and affiliation. All three of these are generally driven by an internal desire, not an external goalpost.

Those motivated by achievement often focus on excellence or improved performance. They want to see results from their work. They like a challenge and enjoy being consulted about decisions and planning. On the other hand, they may be perceived as insensitive to the feelings of others and focused only on getting the work done.

Others are motivated by power. I have found that women often retreat from the description of ‘power’, but recognize that they are motivated by opportunities for leadership and/or visibility. Those motivated by power like having an impact and want to see change. They like to have clear-cut policies, lines of authority. They work well alone. They also like to be seen with the powerful people in an organization, focusing on those with power and influence. Alternately, they may appear to be indifferent to other people.

Another group is motivated by affiliation. These are the social types who like to be with others. They enjoy meaningful relationships. They like to be part of a team or a group. On the down side, these volunteers tend to avoid conflict. They want a caring, engaged supervisor and they may be hurt by criticism, and keep their thoughts to themselves. In the end, they may sacrifice project goals to keep others happy.

None of us fit neatly into one of these boxes, but we all have characteristics of each of them. The key is to acknowledge these motivations and adapt the expectations for each volunteer to suit the qualities that motivate them.

By contrast, Daniel Pink describes drive as having three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy provides an element of self-determination that is personally satisfying. Volunteers who feel that they can shape their volunteer assignment in a way that reflects their skills, knowledge, and level of confidence in your organization will be much more engaged than those who complete an assignment in a way that makes no sense to them. Mastery includes a curiosity about learning new things, a willingness to stretch for the sake of gaining new understanding. Pink notes that those who are extrinsically motivated tend to think of learning as a fixed thing—once you learn it you are done. Intrinsically motivated people tend to bask in the experience of learning. Purpose is about mission, vision and goals. It is a personally satisfying connection to something larger than oneself.

These ideas provide a variety of ways to consider the assignments you offer to volunteers and the ways you recognize and reinforce the gifts these volunteers bring to your organization.

Anne B. Schink is a volunteer management consultant and the author of the Nonprofit Readiness Toolkit.

This entry was posted in Episodic Volunteering, Managing Performance, Pro-Bono/Skilled Volunteers, Recognition, Recruitment, Resources, Retention and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Re-Thinking Volunteer Motivation

  1. Pingback: More on Motivation: Cues from the Business Sector | From the Field

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