Why DO people volunteer?

by Bob Moore

Most of you reading this are already in the volunteer field – either giving to an organization as a volunteer yourself or in the “business” of trying to recruit and retain volunteers. I don’t think I’m going to tell you anything enlightening that you don’t already know – if you’re going to be successful in attracting volunteers, you need to understand what makes people volunteer in the first place.

People volunteer for many reasons, sometimes altruism, sometimes personal, but always for a purpose. For many it’s a way of giving back. Have you ever heard someone say, “My mother received excellent care in this hospital and I want to repay some of that kindness”? Or “When I was growing up, I had a coach who made a difference in my life and I want to have the same influence on a young boy or girl”?

In the “old days”, volunteers were often people who had lots of time to spare and were looking for something to do. Although this may have been the case decades ago when many women hadn’t yet entered the workplace, this stereotype no longer fits. Women still volunteer more than men, and people between the ages of 35 and 44 are the likeliest to volunteer. Time is a precious commodity among all of us – and those members of the “likeliest group” to volunteer have little to spare – often trying to balance careers with raising families, taking care of aging parents, going to the gym, and keeping up with e-mail!

So given all of this, why do people volunteer?

Many volunteers are looking to meet people – plain and simple. They might have just moved to an area or become “empty-nesters”. They want to meet people who they can share time enjoying the same kinds of interests with. Some people find these relationships in the gym; some find them in the workplace; many also find them in the volunteer setting.

Other people are looking to learn new skills that they can use in the workplace or to enhance their job possibilities. Many others look to volunteering as a way to explore a career change in fields like medicine, technology or education. Some would-be volunteers are just curious: a parent might want to see what really goes on inside their child’s school, while a citizen might wonder how city hall really functions. While some people volunteer to gain workplace experience, others volunteer to assess the environment and see if it fits them. Some volunteers even get jobs out of their experience – how many of you volunteer coordinators began as volunteers in a place similar to where you are now part of the paid staff?

Some folks are just looking to have some fun.

I believe that volunteering is a two-way street; that is it shouldn’t only be the organization that benefits from a volunteer – the volunteer should benefit as well. Though the best volunteers usually have the desire to serve others, it does not exclude other motivations as well. Instead of considering volunteering as something one does only for people who are not as fortunate, one needs to think of it more as an “exchange.”

You need to ask the volunteer why he/she is volunteering… and listen! Understanding why people volunteer makes it easier to find volunteers, organize their work, and recognize their contributions. Not everyone is motivated by the same factors.

For those who like lists, following is one that I culled from a variety of sources as to why people volunteer. Apologies for any redundancies.

  • Achievement
  • Recognition and feedback
  • Personal growth
  • Giving something back
  • Bringing about social change
  • Family ties
  • Friendship & support
  • Feeling of belonging
  • Help others
  • Make a difference
  • Find purpose
  • Enjoy a meaningful conversation
  • Connect with your community
  • Feel involved
  • Contribute to a cause you care about
  • Use your skills in a productive way
  • Develop new skills
  • Meet new people
  • Explore new areas of interest
  • Impress your mom (my personal favorite!)
  • Expand your horizons
  • Get out of the house
  • Make new friends
  • Strengthen your resume
  • Feel better about yourself
  • Feel needed
  • Share a skill
  • Get to know a community
  • Demonstrate commitment to a cause/belief
  • Gain leadership skills
  • Act out a fantasy
  • Do your civic duty
  • Pressure from a friend or relative
  • Satisfaction from accomplishment
  • Keep busy
  • Repay a debt
  • Donate your professional skills
  • Because there is no one else to do it
  • To have an impact
  • Learn something new
  • Freedom of schedule
  • Help a friend or relative
  • For escape
  • To become an “insider”
  • Guilt
  • Be challenged
  • Be a watchdog
  • Feel proud
  • Make new friends
  • Explore a career
  • Help someone
  • Therapy
  • Do something different from your job
  • For fun!
  • For religious reasons
  • Earn academic credit
  • Keep skills alive
  • Because an agency is geographically close
  • An excuse to do what you love
  • Be able to criticize
  • Assure Progress
  • Feel good
  • Be part of a team
  • Gain status
  • Test yourself
  • Build your resume
  • To be an agent of change
  • Personal experience with problem, illness, or cause
  • To stand up and be counted
  • Because you were asked!

As this list illustrates, you don’t have to focus your recruitment efforts exclusively on retired people or others who have a lot of leisure time. If you can provide an environment in which volunteers can be with friends, meet others who share their interests, and learn new skills, you can lure even the busiest people into helping. Remember, you don’t have to be apologetic about asking for help – volunteering also benefits those people who step forward to assist you.

There’s even a book titled “Non-Profit Kit for Dummies” with a chapter on “Considering Why People Volunteer”.

Bob Moore is Executive Director of the Friends of the Cobbossee Watershed in Augusta, Maine.

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3 Responses to Why DO people volunteer?

  1. Penny Kern says:

    This is so true, Bob. Before I retired, my job was to recruit Girl Scout leaders and other volunteers. Leaders were the hardest because it required a 3 – 5 hour a week commitment for about 32 weeks of the year. 98% of the women recruited worked outside their home and included nurses, doctors, teachers, people who had 30 and 40 mile trips to get back and forth to work, industry workers, executives, etc, etc, etc. I personally believe, if you have a good handle on your mission and what needs to happen to accomplish that mission, any job can be tweeked to fit anyone who wants to volunteer or have a volunteer position handy for anyone who’s interested. It may not be the exact one you are recruiting for but one that’s been in the back of your head formulating.

    My biggest challenges were the ladies who stopped me in the grocery store or walking down the hall of a school saying they’d like to volunteer but didn’t want to be a leader (or wouldn’t make a good leader). There I am, on the spot – “Great, give me a call” was usually my response. Then I’d worry for a couple of days trying to come up with something appropriate for them. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t but I had fun trying.

    Thank you for the topic and great article.

  2. Joan Bailey says:

    This was a great post. Our volunteer program is relatively new and still relatively small; however, we try to provide a high-quality experience for all of our volunteers no matter their age or the task at hand. We just did a survey of our volunteers, which helped us find out why they joined us for projects. Are there other ways we might find out why people volunteer with us? I talk to individuals, but I am also looking for more “scientific” or “concrete” ways to gather this information.

    Many thanks for another great post.

  3. Anne Schink says:

    Many websites provide good information about what motivates volunteers. http://www.energizeinc.com

    One of the more interesting points was made by Martin Cowling, an Australian trainer and consultant, who says that people’s motivation changes over time. The link connects to a free book “Turn your Organisation into a Volunteer Magnet”

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