Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Volunteerism

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
What motivates people to volunteer?
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

"How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world" Anne Frank

Overview[edit | edit source]

The answer to the question of what motivates people to volunteer their time and expertise in the community is a simple one – they want to help, make a difference, find happiness and fulfilment, and make others happy. What motivates volunteerism is that simple and so much more complex. This book chapter explores the theories, motivations, implications and some of the practical applications of volunteerism. It is also intended to assist readers to identify what personally motivates them to volunteer, or make the decision to volunteer and to consider whether volunteerism is likely to promote happiness.

Parodyfilm.svg Dedicated Volunteers | Wesley Mission, Sydney - YouTube] (Enrich and empower another life, meet new and interesting people, learn new skills, explore career development and discover training opportunities through volunteering, 6:19mins)

Volunteerism defined[edit | edit source]

Definitions of volunteerism tend to be multifaceted, focussing on the long-term helping of others without material rewards and of free will, without coercion or financial payment, in a formal setting (Cnaan, Handy & Wadsworth, 1996; Fiorillo, 2011; Haski-Leventhal, 2009; Volunteering Australia). Rather than being a spontaneous act, such as in the immediate response to an emergency, Clary et al. (1998) describes volunteerism as being a planned form of helping. In the ‘planned helping’ context, those interested in volunteering proactively search for opportunities to help others; they deliberate about the extent of their involvement in terms of time, costs, opportunity and which activities will be of benefit to the volunteer’s personal needs and those of the community.

What is a volunteer?[edit | edit source]

Volunteer firefighters

It is difficult to define what a volunteer comprises because volunteers are not a homogenous group. Volunteers can operate in a variety of organisations and roles, be of all ages, backgrounds, male or female and possess a wide range of interests, experiences and skills (Bussell & Forbes, 2002). A study by Cnaan, Handy and Wadsworth (1996) found that people tend to define volunteers in four dimensions:

  • Free Will (free to choose to be a volunteer);
  • Remuneration (none at all);
  • Structure (formal); and
  • Intended Beneficiaries (benefit or help others or strangers).

The study also found that public perception of ‘what is a volunteer’ is frequently viewed in terms of the concept of ‘net cost’. That is, the higher the amount of work undertaken in terms of the four dimensions (cost), the more likely the person will be perceived as a volunteer. Those who are perceived as receiving rewards (benefits) are less likely to be thought of as a volunteer.

Demographics and motivations[edit | edit source]

Many studies have labelled the ‘typical volunteer’ as being female, middle-aged to older, well educated and with a higher income (Bussell & Forbes, 2002; Holmes, 2009; Shye, 2010; Warburton & Stirling, 2007). Warburton and Stirling (2007) indicated that these factors appear to be predictive of volunteering, explained by the fact that higher levels of education and income can produce greater opportunities to contribute. Gender differences in volunteering tend to differ, with some research indicating that more females than males volunteer (Bussell & Forbes, 2002), and others reporting no significant gender differences (Choi, 2003; Warburton & Stirling, 2007).

A study by Dolnicar and Randle (2007) studied volunteers’ demographic profiles alongside motivational patterns and identified six ‘segments’ of volunteering. The six segments were classified as follows: “classic volunteers” are older, very active volunteers who are involved to gain satisfaction and help others; “dedicated volunteers” who volunteer the most hours, over a number of volunteering organisations; “personally involved volunteers” who volunteer temporarily, for example in school activities as parental support; “Volunteers for personal satisfaction” are the least distinct segment; “altruists” who befriend and listen to people; and “niche volunteers” are young, highly educated, and enter volunteering through obligation, to gain work experience or honour religious beliefs. The identification of the six segments indicates that the generalised labelling of volunteers into specific ‘typical’ groups such as female, well educated with a high income is quite constrictive and may not present volunteers’ true demographics and motivations.

Studies such as undertaken by Dolnicar and Randle (2007), reflect researchers’ and voluntary organisations’ considerable interest in obtaining a more complete picture of what volunteers ‘look like’ and what motivates them to volunteer. Such research has the potential to assist, for example, in effectively targeted marketing in the recruitment and retention of volunteers. Understanding volunteerism can also help individuals to more effectively identify the type of prosocial activities which will suit their tastes and give satisfaction. The following section considers motivation in more detail by discussing a few of the theories on volunteerism that have arisen over the past few decades. Before reading further, however, you may wish to reflect on your own demographic profile and what has motivated you to volunteer – or what could motivate you to become a volunteer.

For the latest facts and figures on volunteering in Australia, please click on the following link :

Exercise #1 : Volunteerism - Demographics and motivations

Happy face.svg Reflect on your own demographic profile. What is your demographic profile for volunteering? Happy face.svg Try writing a list for yourself, or use the following checklist, based on the Dolnicar & Randle, 2007 study

  • Classic Volunteer – aged 45 years or older, probably working reduced hours or retired. Wants to gain satisfaction and help others
  • Dedicated Volunteer – have time and knowledge or expertise available to volunteer very regularly, for a number of different organisations
  • Personally Involved Volunteer – available for short-term volunteering in a specific area of interest or need, for example helping out with your child’s school activities or your sporting or social group
  • Volunteer for Personal Satisfaction – your motivation to volunteer could include any of these six categories, or a combination
  • Altruistic Volunteer – helping others, for example through friendship, ‘being there’ for others, being a good listener, with no regard to personal gain
  • Niche Volunteer – a young motivated volunteer who wishes to gain experience in their chosen career, build on knowledge gained through education. Also includes mandatory volunteerism, for example as part of an educational course.

The above checklist is by no means a comprehensive or complete list of demographics and motivations for volunteerism. However, it is hoped that by reflecting at this point in the chapter, you will begin to form a framework of who you are or could be as a volunteer. The following section on theories will further assist in developing that framework.

Theories and contexts - What motivates people to volunteer?[edit | edit source]

The 1970s saw the emergence of an increasing number of studies into volunteerism and motivation (Okun, Barr, & Herzog, 1998), along with corresponding theories on the subject. Generally, these theories have revolved around ‘models’ which attribute one or more ‘factors’ to volunteerism and motivation. For example, volunteerism has been described as a single factor model where individuals are motivated to volunteer by a single element which is meaningful for them, such as a rewarding experience (Okun, et al., 1998). The ‘rewarding experience’ may consist of a number of motives which in combination make up this single factor.

In the 1980s several researchers found that people volunteer for more than one reason. For example, Frisch and Gerrard (1981) undertook a study involving Red Cross volunteers which reinforced the concept of a two-factor model of volunteerism. They found that people were motivated to volunteer by altruistic motives, such as a concern for others or egoistic motives involving the desire to satisfy their own needs. In this study, altruistic and egoistic motives were thought to be distinct elements of volunteer motivation. There has, however, been some debate about these factors (eg. Dolnicar & Randle, 2007; Haski-Leventhal, 2009) in the context of more recent theoretical models.

Although much of the early research into volunteerism was not derived within a theoretical framework, it did cast a new perspective on motivations and by the beginning of 1990, a more complex model was evolving. Omoto and Snyder (1990) began by studying social and personality aspects of HIV/AIDS volunteers. The multifactor model of volunteerism began to develop when it was observed that there were several distinct motives for volunteering (Okun, et al., 1998).

Multifactor model - Functional theory of motivation[edit | edit source]

A key component of the function theory of motivation is that people will engage in the same type of volunteer work for different reasons. The functional theory is the result of analyses of empirical studies on the functions served by volunteerism, from which Clary et al. (1998) identified six personal and social functions that relate to volunteering.

The Six Functions of Volunteerism
Function Example
1. Values The volunteer wishes to express or act upon important values like humanitarianism; "I volunteer because I concerned about those less fortunate than myself"; "I want to help others"
2. Understanding The volunteer is seeking to learn more about the world or utilise skills; "I volunteer because I can learn more about the cause for which I am working"
3. Enhancement Volunteer activities can promote psychological growth and development; "I volunteer because volunteering makes me feel better about myself"
4. Career Volunteering has a goal to gain career-related experience; "I volunteer because I can make new contacts that might help my business or career"
5. Social Volunteering facilitates strengthening of social relationships; "I volunteer because my friends volunteer"; "I volunteer because I want to make friends"
6. Protective Volunteering to reduce negative feelings or address personal problems; "I volunteer because volunteering is a good escape from my own troubles"

Exercise #2 : Volunteerism - Functional Theory of Motivation

Consider whether you can relate to the six elements identified under the Functional Theory of Motivation As a volunteer, or potential volunteer, do these elements fit in with your experiences, needs and goals?

Clary and Snyder (1999) found that individuals’ multiple motives for volunteerism arise from their individual experiences, needs and goals, and that motives may change over time. This may help explain observations by Chacon, Vecina and Davila (2007) that the functions contained in the functional theory are most useful in the early stages of volunteering, prior to the development of an individual’s identity as a volunteer and while commitment is still relatively low.

Role Identity Theory[edit | edit source]

The role identity model helps to explain what motivates sustained volunteering (Chacon, Vecina & Davila, 2007). Role identity theory suggests that an individual’s self-concept is organised into a series of role identities that are consistent with roles undertaken in that individual’s social structure, eg. spouse, activist, employee, volunteer (Charng, Piliavin & Callero, 1988). These multiple role identities develop through on-going external social interactions and the perceived expectations of others, for example, parental or societal expectations may provide the impetus to volunteer (Finkelstein, Penner & Brannick, 2005).

Exercise #3 : Volunteerism - Role Identity Theory

Take a minute to think about your own ‘role-identities’. Think about how these roles became part of your ‘self-concept’. Maybe you are drawn to a particular role identity. What motivates you to sustain that identify, eg. satisfaction or pride in your ability to ‘give’ your time, expertise; commitment to a cause or belief; happiness?

According to Finkelstein and Brannick (2007), the more an individual participates in a role, such as that of a volunteer, the more that role is adopted as part of the self, or ‘role identity’ and the greater the motivation to sustain that role. An example of role identity theory was found in a study by Charng, Piliavin and Callero (1988) where blood donors began to change their attitudes toward donation from a ‘habit’ to a ‘career’. Blood donors began to label themselves as “regular blood donors” after three or four donations and became sensitive to any implication that their donation was due to social pressure, rather than a voluntary act. Interestingly, research has also shown that, in addition to motivating sustained volunteering, there is a correlation between the strength of a person’s role identity and the quantity of voluntary work undertaken (Grube & Piliavin, 2000).

Social capital theory[edit | edit source]

The social capital theory hypothesises that people are motivated to volunteer because it creates social capital and social networks and thus brings economic, resource and social benefits to a community (Holmes, 2009; Warburton & Stirling, 2007). According to Holmes (2009), volunteering creates good citizens because it builds trust in other people and organisations; enables people to socialise and become involved in community issues and allows people to learn about local social problems and needs. Social capital is frequently given a central role in volunteerism because without the social networks and trusting collaboration between individuals and groups, volunteering would be a solitary individual activity (Clary & Snyder, 2002; Warburton & Stirling, 2007). Factors associated with social capital theory include:

  • Religious affiliation – people with a religious affiliation are motivated to volunteer because of the community and social capital aspects of membership (Evans & Kelley, 2000);
  • People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may prefer to volunteer informally within their communities, assisting with social integration and the building of trust within their community, as well as bringing with them their own cultural network connections (Warburton & Stirling, 2007).

According to Holmes (2009) evidence suggests that many community volunteer programs attract like-minded groups of people, which leads to the fulfilment of the primary reason given for being a volunteer in Australia ‘helping others and/or the community’ (ABS 2010).

Volunteers help clean-up a devastated community

Exercise #4 : Volunteerism - Social Capital Theory

Are you a member of a community? For example, you may belong to a church group; sporting, cultural or university community. You may live in a small town. How does Social Capital Theory fit in with this? Perhaps you have volunteered to support someone inside or outside the group; done some fundraising; held some fun/bonding social events. Maybe you are now motivated to help build some social capital in your community.

Systematic quality of life theory[edit | edit source]

Exercise #5 - Systematic Quality of Life Theory

Volunteering. What's in it for you? Does the opportunity to develop friendships and feel part of your communiity appeal to you?

The Systematic Quality of Life (SQOL) theory adopts a new approach to volunteerism. The SQOL theory offers a set of possible benefits and rewards for volunteering by inquiring into how volunteering enhances the volunteer’s own quality of life (Shye, 2010). The approach taken by Shye (2010) differs considerably from the majority of other theoretical models which tend to be primarily altruistically or intrinsically oriented. The study reverses the usual order of investigation into volunteer motivations, asking what needs are perceived to be satisfied by volunteering, rather than what motivates individuals to volunteer.

The Shye (2010) study which asked volunteers and non-volunteers what are the benefits of volunteering found that, for the general population, the opportunity to develop friendships, gaining a sense of belonging in the community and expressing one’s personality and beliefs were the primary motivations for volunteering.

The very recent nature of the SQOL theory means that there are few studies available to directly refute or support its primarily egoistic view of volunteering. A recent study by Finkelstein (2010), did however, confirm that individualists and collectivists differ in why they choose to volunteer. Finkelstein suggested that, in-line with the Shye (2010) findings, individualists tend to be more self-focussed and use volunteering as a means to meet career aspirations and fulfilment of other personal needs, whereas collectivism is associated with other-oriented motives. A study exploring extrinsic and intrinsic motivational orientation (Finkelstein, 2009) also linked extrinsic orientation with ‘external’ motives such as fulfilling career aspirations, and intrinsic orientation with ‘internal’ motives which were satisfied by the volunteer activity itself.

In defence of the SQOL theory, Shye suggests that one’s self-interest is an intrinsic element of being entangled in a social and cultural network. This suggestion is supported by the findings in the Finkelstein (2009; 2010) studies and is the essence of all the theories presented in this chapter on volunteerism because it acknowledges the multi-facted and complex composition of volunteerism and its motivations.

It is interesting to note the progression from the early ‘single and two-factor’ models of volunteerism, which tended to make the assumption that volunteering was principally motivated by altruistic motives. More recent theories have become bolder by exploring egoistic motives as well as the consideration of personality orientation, social and cultural factors. The knowledge gained from these theoretical models also helps to facilitate mutually satisfying relationships between volunteers and volunteer organisations.

Volunteerism from an organisational perspective[edit | edit source]

It is widely acknowledged that volunteer work on a sustained basis is fundamental to the effective functioning of many organisations (Finkelstein et al., 2005). In fact, it is also recognized that formal volunteering makes a considerable social and economic contribution to society. The processes that motivate and sustain volunteerism are therefore of great interest to social psychologists (Finkelstein et al., 2005) and ultimately to organisations who utilise volunteers as part of their formal workforce.

Research has found that elements of volunteerism such as initial motives and self-concept change and evolve as volunteering experience increases. Volunteers who feel their efforts are nurtured, accepted and valued will be motivated to remain with an organisation long-term (Omoto & Snyder, 1995). Chacon, Vecina and Davila (2007) reported that a combination of organisational dedication, volunteers’ satisfaction with the way in which their motives are fulfilled by the experience, and role identity are predictive of both short and long-term volunteer service. Overall, Finkelstein et al. (2005) suggests that volunteers’ sense of commitment is mediated by role identity, with longevity in volunteering being linked to the strength of role identity.

From the personal fulfilment perspective, it is equally important that prospective volunteers understand what qualities, goals and skills they wish to offer an organisation or volunteer group, as well as rewards they may hope to gain from the experience.

On the basis of theoretical studies into the motivational aspects of volunteerism, it cannot be assumed that people volunteer for purely altruistic reasons. It is clear that volunteers expect various rewards from their volunteer work, such as the opportunity to learn, gain experience in a chosen career, building social capital in their community, develop friendships and a sense of belonging. The receipt of these rewards, along with a strong self-concept is important to a volunteer’s decision to remain in their volunteer roles for long periods of time.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Altruism versus Egoism

Indicate which of the following describe your motives for volunteerism. Are your motivations altruistic, egoistic, or a mix of both? (There are no right or wrong answers)

1 Altruistic?

I volunteer out of my concern for others
I am happy to listen to others
I use my skills and experience to benefit those who need my help

2 Egoistic?

I volunteer because it makes me feel like I belong to a community
I volunteer to gain experience for my new career
Volunteering makes me feel good about myself

Does volunteerism promote happiness?[edit | edit source]

What is happiness?[edit | edit source]

According to Harris (2007), happiness comprises two very different definitions. Happiness can be linked to feelings or emotions such as “a sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification” (Harris, 2007, p. 15), as well as being “characterised by experiences of contentment, satisfaction, love or joy” (Grant & Leigh, 2011, p. 4).

The other part of happiness is “a rich, full and meaningful life” (Harris, 2007, p. 15). Harris goes on to describe living a meaningful life as offering a “profound sense of a life well lived” – which is not fleeting but long lasting. The meaningful life is about feeling that you are “purposefully involved in life activities such as work, relationships and recreational activities” (Grant & Leigh, 2011, p. 5).

If you consider “What is happiness?” against each of the theories of volunteerism discussed in this chapter, you could probably come up with an extensive list which highlights the joyful and meaningful aspects of volunteering. Here are just a few examples of how volunteerism may promote happiness:

  • Gain satisfaction, joy, pleasure from helping others;
  • Volunteering provides a sense of pride and identity;
  • The enjoyment of being able to help kids in their school and other activities;
  • Experience joy in the ability to share knowledge and skills with others;
  • Develop a sense of purpose through voluntary contributions to civic life ie. volunteering builds a better community;
  • Volunteering enables individuals to learn more about social problems and issues;
  • Volunteering helps build career skills and experience;
  • Being a volunteer can help take focus off your own troubles and focus on others;
  • Volunteering can nurture long-last friendships and relationships

You may also wish to reflect on your responses to this chapter’s Motivation Exercises, to help build your own framework of who you are or could be as a volunteer.

In many situations the mutual benefits of volunteerism are most easily explained by those at the ‘coal face’. Follow this link Parodyfilm.svg to hear a touching story of volunteerism – told by Australian volunteers caring for young abandoned Chinese children, through International China Concern (ICC).

Does volunteerism promote happiness? There is a considerable amount of research which suggests that volunteering has the potential to promote happiness in ourselves and others. The ultimate decision is a personal one.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

ABS (2010). National survey of volunteering issues 2010: Preliminary findings – summary. Retrieved from:

Bussell, H., & Forbes, D. (2002). Understanding the volunteer market: The what, where, who and why of volunteering. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 7, 244-257.

Chacon, F., Vecina, M. L., & Davila, M. C. (2007). The three-stage model of volunteers’ duration of service. Social Behavior and Personality, 35, 627-642.

Charng, H-W., Piliavin, J. A., & Callero, P. L. (1988). Social Psychology Quarterly, 51, 303-317.

Choi, L. H. (2003). Factors affecting volunteerism among older adults. The Journal of Applied Gerontology, 22, 179-196.

Clary, E. G., & Snyder, M. (1999). The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 156-159.

Clary, E. G., & Snyder, M. (2002). Community involvement: Opportunities and challenges in socializing adults to participate in society. Journal of Social Issues, 3, 581-591.

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, 1516-1530.

Cnaan, R. A., Handy, F., & Wadsworth, M. (1996). Defining who is a volunteer: Conceptual and empirical considerations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 25, 364-383.

Dolnicar, S., & Randle, M. (2007). What motivates which volunteers? Psychographic heterogeneity among volunteers in Australia. Voluntas, 18, 135-155.

Evans, M. D. R., & Kelley, J. (2000). Charity work: International differences and Australian trends. Australian Monitor, 3, 15-23.

Finkelstein, M. A., Brannick, M. T. (2007). Applying theories of institutional helping to informal volunteering: Motives, role identity, and prosocial personality. Social Behavior and Personality, 35, 101-114.

Finkelstein, M. A., Penner, L. A., & Brannick, M. T. (2005). Motive, role identity, and prosocial personality as predictors of volunteer activity. Social behaviour and Personality, 33, 403-418.

Finkelstein, M. A. (2008). Volunteer satisfaction and volunteer action: A functional approach. Social Behavior and Personality, 36, 9-18.

Finkelstein, M. A. (2009). Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivational orientations and the volunteer process. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 653-658.

Finkelstein, M. A. (2010). Individualism/collectivism: Implications for the volunteer process. Social Behavior and Personality, 38, 445-452.

Fiorillo, D. (2011). Do monetary rewards crowd out the intrinsic motivation of volunteers? Some empirical evidence for Italian volunteers. Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 82, 139-165.

Frisch, M. B., & Gerrard, M. (1981). Natural helping systems: A survey of red cross volunteers. American Journal of Community Psychology, 9, 567-579.

Grant, A. M., & Leigh, A. (2011). 8 steps to happiness: an everday handbook. South Australia: Griffin Press.

Grube, J. A., & Piliavin, J. A. (2000). Role identity, organizational experiences, and volunteer performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1108-1119.

Harris, R. ( 2007). The happiness trap: Stop struggling, start living. Wollombi, Australia: Exisle Publishing Limited.

Haski-Leventhal, D. (2009). Altruism and volunteerism: The perceptions of altruism in four disciplines and their impact on the study of volunteerism. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 39, 271-299.

Holmes, K. (2009). The value of volunteering. Australian Journal on Volunteering, 14(6), 1-9.

Okun, M. A., Barr, A., & Herzog, A. R. (1998). Motivation to volunteer by older adults: A test of competing measurement models. Psychology and Aging, 13, 608-621.

Omoto, A. M., & Snyder, M. (1990). Volunteerism and society’s response to AIDS. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16, 152-165.

Omoto, A. M., & Snyder, M. (1995). Sustained helping without obligation: Motivation, longevity of service, and perceived attitude change among AIDS volunteers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 671-686.

Shye, S. (2010). The motivation to volunteer: A systemic quality of life theory. Social Indicators Research, 98, 183-200.

Volunteering Australia (2009). Definitions and Principles of Volunteering – Information Sheet. Retrieved from

Warburton, J., & Stirling, C. (2007). Factors affecting volunteering among older rural and city dwelling adults in Australia. Educational Gerontology, 33, 23-43.