Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Volunteer motivation

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Volunteer motivation:
What motivates volunteering?
Volunteers assist survivors at the Houston Astrodome following Hurricane Katrina.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Volunteering is a foundational block in the development and sustainability of civil society around the world. In order for volunteer organizations to prosper and be operational, numerous volunteers are needed (Hustinx et al., 2010). In its most basic form volunteering consists of an individual wanting to help another in need, therefore the main motivation at play can only be assumed to be altruism. However there are many factors that motivate individuals to want to get involved in volunteering including egotistic motives. This chapter will look at informal and formal volunteering, it will also attempt to analyse what motivates individuals to begin to volunteer and to continue to do so. Gender and age differences will also be explored and concepts on how to get people to engage in volunteering will be discussed.

History/etymology[edit | edit source]

The word volunteer comes from the French word voluntaire, derived from the Latin word voluntarius, which means “voluntary, of one’s free will”. First use of the word volunteer was referred to “one who offers himself for military service”. Non-military sense of the word was first recorded in the 1630s.

The Salvation Army founders, Catherine and William Booth

Some form of volunteering or providing unpaid aid has always been important for civilization, especially for pre-industrial societies where mutual self-help was essential for the survival of rural communities (Gillette, 1999). Before the 19th century there were only a few, if any, organizations or charities dedicated to helping others.

One of the first organizations offering free services for people in need was the London Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) established in 1844, an association that aims to preach Christian values by developing a healthy “mind, body and spirit”. Seven years later, the YWCA the Young Woman’s Christian Association was founded, an organization focusing on working for social and economic change in the world.

The Salvation Army is considered one of the oldest and largest organizations, established in 1865, it begun as a Christian mission focused on helping disadvantaged people, however formal volunteering programs did not begin until the 20th century which is also when the volunteering movement truly kicked off and organizations emerged all over the world such as the Red Cross, Rotary International and the Peace Corps.

Statistics in Australia[edit | edit source]

  • According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the rate of the work contributed by volunteers to non-profit institutions in 1999-2000 was estimated to be $8.9 billion.
  • In 2006, 22% of women were regular volunteers compared with 19% of men
  • Rates of regular volunteering were highest among people aged 35-44 years and 45-54 years. Women aged 35-44 years were the group most likely to be regular volunteers (32%) followed by men and women aged 45-54 years (24% each).
  • Two thirds of volunteers work for one organization only and two types of organizations account for almost half of all volunteers: community/welfare and sporting/recreation (Dolnicar & Randle, 2007).
  • On average volunteers donate 1.4 hours per week or 72 hours per year and 40 percent have been volunteering with the same type of organizations for six years or more (Dolnicar & Randle, 2007).
  • See table 1.0 for rates of volunteering in various life stages

Table 1.0

Persons in Selected Life Stages – 2006

Selected person's life stage Rate of Regular Volunteering % Average weekly hours Total annual hours
Lone person aged less than 35 years 14.8 3.3 7.4
Couple only, aged less than 35 years 17.2 2.5 21.3
Couple with youngest child aged less than 15 years 28.6 2.8 151.5
Couple with youngest child aged 15 years and over 18.6 4.8 67.0
Lone parent with youngest child aged less than 15 years 26.5 3.6 21.6
Lone parent with youngest child aged 15 years and over 17.4 4.2 14.4
Couple only aged 55 years and over 19.9 6.4 170.3
Lone person aged 55 years and over 17.6 5.5 53.8
All persons aged 18 years and over 20.5 4.0 645.9

Source: ABS 2006 Voluntary Work Survey.

Informal volunteering[edit | edit source]

Informal Volunteering is considered an informal way of “helping out” friends, neighbours and kin outside the household, helping an elderly neighbour with their errands, helping out at a local school or tutoring a cousin are examples of informal helping (Wilson & Musick, 1997). “Helping out” is considered a form of volunteering as it is a productive activity that benefits individuals and consists of unpaid work, it is also predominant among females and it is the most unrecognised type of volunteering. In middle class societies it is usually seen as an obligation to help family members and friends in need (Wilson & Musick, 1997). However poorer areas see it as a natural and biological phenomenon and heavily rely on close family, mutual aid and voluntarism as it helps people cope with poverty, unemployment and social exclusion (Dean, 2011).

Formal volunteering[edit | edit source]

Formal volunteering is described as giving unpaid help to groups or organizations to benefit others or the environment (Rochester, 2006). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics volunteering is defined as someone who willingly gave unpaid help, in the form of time, service or skills, through an organization or group in the last 12 months. Dolnicar and Randle (2007) explain that volunteering at its most basic is people wanting to help others and that people’s motivation are at their core, altruistic. However Wilson and Musick (1997) argue that the essence of volunteering is not altruism, but rather the contribution of services, goods, or money to help attain an anticipated end, without coercion or direct compensation.

Motivation to volunteer[edit | edit source]

Volunteering motivations are multifaceted and can occur in combination with each other, it is considered a complex interplay that includes altruistic and egotistic motivations (Hustinx et al., 2010). While altruism may be the main reason why someone would volunteer there are also many egotistic factors that contribute to individual’s motivations, such as the benefits they receive from being involved (Dolnicar & Randle, 2007).

Volunteers sweep the boardwalk in Brooklyn after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy.

Altruism-egoism debate[edit | edit source]

Egoism is the ethical theory that all human beings are deep down only motivated by what is perceived to be in their own self-interest (May, 2011). Altruism on the other hand is the belief that we can have ultimately altruistic motives, selfless motivations and concern for other’s well-being (May, 2011). Presume for example, you stopped to help a fellow workmate pick up a stack of paperwork which he just dropped, some would suggest that your motives were purely altruistic, how could it possibly be an advantage to yourself? According to egoism you were essentially motivated to benefit yourself, therefore your motives for helping could ultimately be the good feeling you get after helping another, or to avoid social criticism for not stopping and helping your workmate. The altruism-egoism debate is a good example of people’s motives for volunteering, that is, although some individuals may have altruistic intentions for helping another, ultimately their motivation to help is egotistic.

Altruistic motivations[edit | edit source]

Volunteers hand out water to cyclists.

Many volunteer’s motivation for helping is essentially altruistic; there is a large amount of evidence that suggests this. The desire to help others is the reason most given by volunteers and helping others has been the most important factor among various volunteers of different ages and background (Bussell &Forbes, 2002). Another reason why people may want to volunteer is if they believe they can significantly contribute to the organization as they may have specific skills which could possibly benefit the group (Bussell &Forbes, 2002).

A common motivation for many volunteers is the importance placed in certain values, also known as the value-expressive function. Volunteering allows people to act accordingly to their values and beliefs, it also gives individuals the chance to express these values and pass them on to others (Bussell &Forbes, 2002). For example, volunteering is very common among religious groups as they can express and preach their core values and beliefs.

Many also volunteer because they know someone who is already a member of an organization or know a friend or family member who benefits from one. People may also begin to volunteer because someone they value has asked them to (Bussell &Forbes, 2002).

Egotistic motivations[edit | edit source]

Just as people have altruistic motivations to volunteer they might also have egotistic reasons for volunteering or most likely both. People may volunteer for social reasons, such as, a sense of belonging, the need to connect with others, gaining eminence or self-esteem, or it could just be a way of making new friends (Bussell &Forbes, 2002). Another important motivation reported by volunteers, especially the older ones, is the need to feel useful and productive (Bussell &Forbes, 2002). As mentioned before, many volunteers join organizations because they already have relative or friends that are volunteers, therefore joining the organization can offer more prospects of social relations and community in return for unpaid labour (Wilson and Musick, 1997). There are clearly appealing social prospects for volunteering which motivates a lot of individuals to want to volunteer.

People may also be motivated to volunteer to gain new skills, which in turn maybe useful for a future career, to gain academic credit, enhance job opportunities or career advancement (Bussell &Forbes, 2002). Many organizations, schools and workplace in the UK and USA stress the importance of volunteering, emphasizing the benefits one can gain from volunteering, such as gaining confidence, preparing for the workforce and experience (Bussell &Forbes, 2002). Hustinx et al. (2010) suggests that many people, especially young individuals, volunteer as an “investment” to develop skills and experience which then can be listed on their resumes which will be appealing to employers.

As Bussell and Forbes (2002) explain, less apparent reasons for volunteering include wanting to wear a uniform, the perks one may earn, mixing with celebrities, health and fitness or travel prospects.

Some other important motivations for volunteering is that it is positively related to mental health, physical well-being, and overall life satisfaction (Bidee et al., 2013).

Altruism versus egoism take the quiz!


Functional approach to volunteerism[edit | edit source]

Volunteer firefighters.

A core principle of the functionalist approach to volunteering is that individuals may perform the same actions in the service of different psychological functions (Clary et al., 1998). The same attitudes could serve different purposes for different individuals and attempts to change attitude would succeed as long as the functions served by those attitudes are addressed (Clary et al., 1998). Functional theory also suggests that individuals volunteer in order to fulfill core psychological and social needs and goals, however these core needs may vary among individuals that may be performing the same actions (Dolnicar & Randle, 2007).

Volunteer functions inventory[edit | edit source]

Clary and Snyder (1999) based on functional theory, developed the Volunteer Functions Inventory (VFI) an instrument that assess six main functions potentially served by volunteering (see table 2.0).

Table 2.0

Functions Served by Volunteering and their assessment on the Volunteer Functions Inventory (VFI).

Function Conceptual definition Sample VFI item
Values The individual volunteers in order to express or act on important values like humanitarianism. I feel it is important to help others.
Understanding The volunteer is seeking to learn more about the world or exercise skills that are often unused. Volunteer lets me learn through direct, hands-on experience.
Enhancement One can grow and develop psychologically through volunteer activities. Volunteering makes me feel better about myself.
Career The volunteer has the goal of gaining career-related experience through volunteering. Volunteering can help me get my foot in the door at a place where I would like to work.
Social Volunteering allows an individual to strengthen his or her social relationships. People I know share an interest in community service.
Protective The individual uses volunteering to reduce negative feelings, such as guilt, or to address personal problems. Volunteering is a good escape from my own troubles.

Source: Clary and Snyder (1999).

Motivation to continue to volunteer[edit | edit source]

Peace Corps volunteers swearing in.

Understanding how to retain volunteers is just as important as learning volunteer motivations, as many organizations have problems retaining their volunteers. According to Hustinx et al. (2010) organizations need to continually re-evaluate their volunteer’s internal motivations in order to continue to meet their needs and expectations

As Bussell and Forbes (2002) explain, most volunteers will stop volunteering due to lack of time and other commitments but there are many reasons a volunteer will be motivated to stay at an organization despite the effort. A basic but important reason is a positive relationship between staff and paid workers, a volunteer friendly environment will have more chances of retaining their helpers. Bussell and Forbes (2002) emphasise the importance of increasing the satisfaction of volunteers which can lead to increased length of service, when there is a decline in number of volunteers it means all the work is left to fewer people, which can discourage volunteers to continue in the organization.

Another issue is that during recruitment it can give the individual false expectations of what the work actually entails, which leads to volunteers leaving after their expectations aren’t met, having family or friends in the organization always helps, as the individual will know what to expect (Bussell & Forbes 2002).

Bussell and Forbes (2002) state that an organization must offer something specific for its members, elderly volunteers for example, value status, prominence, and rotation of activities and work. On the other hand, political volunteers value feedback, autonomy and involvement. Organizations need to be aware of what motivates their volunteers to commit and offer something particular to member’s goals (Bussell & Forbes 2002). Self-determination theory is also a valuable concept that can be used to explain what motivates people to continue to volunteer for a particular organization.

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Marines volunteer at an orphanage

According to self-determination theory (SDT) human beings have a predisposition towards growth, self-construction, and inner coherence (Bidee et al., 2013). People in general are continuously striving to learn new skills, extend their knowledge and seek new challenges, however because people interact with their social surroundings the environment can either stimulate, impede or block these features humans possess. Development, veracity and psychological well-being can only be developed if innate psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence can be satisfied (Bidee et al., 2013). The first fundamental need in SDT is the need for autonomy, having the capacity of choosing one’s own actions and being free to behave in accordance to internal principles, values and the self. According SDT people also have an instinctive desire to belong, to be part of a group and to care and be cared for. The final fundamental need according to SDT is people’s innate need to feel competent, individuals want to tackle new challenges so as to be able to master new skills and feel capable. Bidee et al., (2013) explains that people will most likely retake these activities that satisfies these needs, which enhance perceptions of autonomy, competence and relatedness which will then increase self-determined motivation.

A basic notion of the SDT is that quality of motivation is just as important as quantity, quality meaning the origin of the motivation whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic is important (Bidee et al., 2013). SDT argues that when people are intrinsically motivated, intrinsic meaning coming from within, when people want to engage in an action, they are more likely to enjoy the activity and continue to pursue it in future. However when an individual is extrinsically motivated, engaging in activities to gain something that is separable from the activity, individuals will not enjoy it as much and probably will not continue to engage in the activity. Bidee et al. (2013) in his research found that volunteers who were intrinsically motivated, autonomous or self-determined enjoyed and dedicated more effort to their work, which relates to previous research that suggests that more intrinsic and autonomous motivations lead to positive outcomes, such as performance, psychological well-being, academic achievements , pro-environmental behaviours, work engagement and job satisfaction.

Gender differences[edit | edit source]

There are only minor differences between males and females; however that makes them no less important, especially for organizations that need to be aware of these differences when recruiting volunteers. According to Dolnicar and Randle (2007) women tend to be members of community, welfare and educational organizations. Whereas men tend to be members of sporting, recreational organizations and emergency services (Hustinx et al., 2010). It has also been reported that women tend to engage in more informal volunteering and to report higher helping behaviours than men, however men tend to belong to more volunteer organizations than women. Wilson and Musick (1997) suggest that these differences provide significant evidence that nurturance and care for others is deeply rooted in sex-role definitions.

Age differences[edit | edit source]

The main age differences found was that older volunteers tend to report getting involved for altruistic reasons such as to “help others” and “contribute to the community.” However young volunteers tend to get involved to acquire training, skills and experience (Hustinx et al., 2010). American students reported volunteering mainly for altruistic purposes; however they also seek to satisfy sell-fulfilment and developmental needs. UK students on the other hand reported consciously engaging in volunteer work to enhance their chances in succeeding in the workforce and acquiring post-education employment (Hustinx et al., 2010).

How to get volunteers[edit | edit source]

Women called to volunteer.

According to Dolnicar and Randle (2007) a good way of recruiting volunteers is through segmentation, which is a basic and well known concept of strategic marketing. The aim of it is to target subgroups of individuals that relate or are similar to each other and with regard to some predefined criterion. They explain that principles such as age, gender or income can be used to cluster these individuals together and define if the succeeding subgroup offers better marketing prospects than the total market. When there is no clear cut criterion to group individuals into, benefits, motivations or beliefs can be used to group individuals (Dolnicar & Randle, 2007). Segmentation supports Bussell and Forbes’ (2002) statement that in order for an organization to recruit volunteers they need to have a good understanding of the motives of its target group of volunteers.

There are many other proactive ways to get volunteers or to encourage people to get involved, for example some firms are now allowing their employees to have time off work (paid or unpaid) to get involved in voluntary work in the community (Bussell &Forbes, 2002).

Many religious institutions convey awareness to individuals of opportunities to volunteer in the community, both within and outside the congregation itself; they also provide contacts, boards, phone numbers, transportation, or whatever it takes to motivate and engage people in volunteering (Wilson and Musick, 1997).

Many universities in the USA and UK when selecting college applicants look for previous volunteer experience, especially Ivy League colleges in the USA (Wilson and Musick, 1997). For this reason many schools encourage volunteering and community services, as it can place students ahead of many applicants who do not have previous volunteering experience. Many schools have now implemented compulsory volunteering for students, which is considered a benefit and a worry. Compelling students to volunteer can be extremely beneficial for the community and organizations, however it may only bring short term benefits as many students who have been extrinsically motivated to volunteer may not want to engage in said activity in the future, which can be detrimental to the community in the long run (Wilson and Musick, 1997).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

People can engage in informal volunteering or in helping behaviours towards family and friends, or they can formally volunteer and be a member of an organization; both classify as volunteering and helping.

What motivates people to participate in volunteering can be altruistic, egotistic or both, however even if someone’s motivation to become a volunteer is primarily altruistic, ultimately there will be egotistic motives involved also, such as a sense of fulfilment, competence and many others. Overall motivations to volunteer are multifaceted and can interrelate with each other; a good explanation of this is the functional approach to volunteering and the volunteer function inventory.

Understanding what motivates individuals to volunteer in the first place is just as important as understanding what motivates individuals to continue to volunteer, as many organizations constantly lose helpers. It is important for organizations to understand what motivates their volunteers to continue, so as to keep on meeting its volunteers’ needs. A good explanation of this is self-determination theory which emphasizes these needs.

It is also important to understand age and gender differences as these specific groups can be targeted to acquire and retain as volunteers and to meet their specific needs. Acquiring volunteers is also very important and many schools, workplaces and institutions are implementing their own techniques to encourage people to volunteer.

What non-profit organizations need to be aware of is that they will have better chances of recruiting and retaining volunteers if they are intrinsically motivated and if their psychological desires are met.

How well did you learn?[edit | edit source]

1 Which non-profit organization was the first of its kind.

Red Cross
None of the above

2 Helping out can be considered a type of volunteering.


3 What is formal volunteering?

Helping out
Getting paid to volunteer
Giving unpaid help to organizations or groups
Donating goods

4 Volunteers are usually altruistically and egotistically motivated.


5 Which is NOT a function of the Volunteer Functions Inventory?


6 Having friends or family volunteering in a organization is bad for recruiting new volunteers.


7 Which is a fundamental need of Self-Determination Theory?

The need for autonomy
The need to be alone
The need to be happy
The need to be sedentary

8 Older volunteers tend to get involved in volunteering to acquire new skills.


9 What is a good way to acquire more volunteers

Handing out pamphlets
Through segmentation
Through extrinsic motivations
Through random television advertisements

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). Voluntary work. Retrieved October 27, 2013 from

Bidee, J., Vantilborgh, T., Pepermans, R., Huybrechts, G., Willems, J., Jegers, M., & Hofmans, J. (2013). Autonomous motivation stimulates volunteers’ work effort: A self-determination theory approach to volunteerism. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 24(1), 32-47. doi:10.1007/s11266-012-9269-x

Bussell, H. and Forbes, D. (2002) 'Understanding the volunteer market: The what, where, who and why of volunteering'. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 7 (3), 244-257. doi:10.1002/nvsm.183

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, 47(6), 1516-1530.

Clary, E. G., & Snyder, M. (1999). The Motivations to Volunteer Theoretical and Practical Considerations. Current directions in psychological science, 8(5), 156-159.

Dean, J (2011). Challenging narratives: the importance of informal volunteering. In: NCVO/VSSN Researching the Voluntary Sector Conference 2011, NCVO, London, 7-8 September 2011.

Dolnicar, S., & Randle, M. (2007). What motivates which volunteers? Psychographic heterogeneity among volunteers in Australia. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 18(2), 135-155.

Gillette, A. (1999). A short history of volunteering. Retrieved October 30, 2013 from

Harper, D. (2001-2013). Online etymology dictionary. October 27, 2013 from

Hustinx, L., Handy, F., Cnaan, R. A., Brudney, J. L., Pessi, A. B., & Yamauchi, N. (2010). Social and cultural origins of motivations to volunteer a comparison of university students in six countries. International Sociology, 25(3), 349-382.

May, J. (2011) Psychological egoism. Retrieved October 29, 2013 from

Rochester, C. (2006). Making sense of volunteering. The Commission of the Future of Volunteering, 1-39.

The Salvation Army. (2012). Origins of the salvation army. October 27, 2013 from

Tropical Adventures. (2013). The history of volunteering. October 27, 2013 from

Wilson, J., & Musick, M. (1997). Who cares? Toward an integrated theory of volunteer work. American Sociological Review, 62, 694-713.