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Missing the Point: Asking the Wrong Questions in Volunteering Research

Missing the Point: Asking the Wrong Questions in Volunteering Research

As so often happens, this Points of View was prompted by something one of us read about volunteering. In this instance it was Rob who came across an article in the UK magazine, Third Sector, entitled, “Research shows that it's hard to increase volunteering rates.”

The article is worth a brief read but can be summarised as follows:

  • Four UK universities wanted to know whether sharing information about how others have volunteered could help to increase the level of volunteering.
  • They conducted trials on a variety of forms of social information, including personalised feedback about individuals' volunteering hours compared with others; e-mail endorsements about the importance and value of volunteering from celebrities, politicians, and students; and information-based nudges that sought to highlight the importance of getting more candidates to stand as parish councillors.
  • None of the approaches led to significant increases in volunteering.

Rather than seeing this result as a failure, the article further notes that:

There was a strong appetite for information about what works in terms of solving recruitment challenges in organisations reliant on volunteers, and a determination to overcome challenges, whether to do with data collection, timing or data protection, and to find answers to these questions.

In other words, more research is needed to find the answers.

In this Points of View, we argue that we’re not sure that this statement is true.  At the very least, we are sure that more research like this is not the way to find answers. And here’s why.

The Wrong Questions Ensure Wrong Answers

Like countless academic studies before it, this new research begins with some troublesome assumptions. Chief among which are:

  • We need to increase the number of volunteers.
  • Recruiting more volunteers always leads to better results.
  • Growing the number of volunteers is meaningful without considering factors such as what those volunteers are doing with their time, whether they are qualified to do it, and whether the time they give could be made more effective with the same or even fewer volunteers.

We ask: Why does the level of volunteering need to be increased? Why is success in volunteering measured in terms of how many people are engaged but not by what they do or how well they do it?

Our fundraising colleagues know that charities are not successful because of how much money they raise but rather how much of that money is spent on the cause and what difference that makes to the lives of clients. The academics who are interested in fundraising understand this as well, and metrics are developed to help organizations demonstrate the impact of donations and return on investment.

Yet in the volunteering world we continue to focus only on how many volunteers we have, with the assumption that recruiting more is self-evidently good and keeping everyone forever is best. Volunteer managers wear their volunteer numbers as a badge of pride whilst funders give money to get more people volunteering and academics judge success against bums on seats.

Consider, for a moment, an organisation that exists to plant trees. In year one it has 100 volunteers and plants 1,000 trees. In year two it retains 50 volunteers and again plants 1,000 trees. By the measure of head count, year two would raise all sorts of red flags, since they’ve seen 50 people not return. Yet the facts point to year two as a great success because fewer resources have been used to achieve the same impact. The return on investment is much higher.

So, instead of the four UK universities looking at how organisations can get more people to volunteer, perhaps they should direct their efforts to helping organisations better measure and articulate the impact volunteers have and the difference they make. Such an approach would not only yield better metrics to measure success but would also tell a more compelling story about the contribution of volunteers to society. And wouldn’t that make volunteering a more attractive proposition for those who don’t already donate their time?

Do We Need More Volunteers?

Our world faces many serious challenges, some almost overwhelming in scope. Money alone cannot mitigate hunger, disease, war, and inhuman treatment of one another. On the other hand, each culture makes decisions on how it will use its resources, including money. The income gap between the wealthy and the poor is growing larger each year, and those whose paid employment is directed at helping others (often in jobs funded by tax revenue) universally earn far less than business people whose job is to make money.

The call for more volunteers frequently occurs when politicians and taxpayers want to “limit government spending.”  Let’s be honest in recognizing that the persistent and pervasive image of volunteers as “free help” is what makes them so appealing to people who really don’t want to spend more money on social problems. This makes the premise under which volunteers are recruited essentially dishonest. In any recruitment campaign, a percentage of prospects see through the charade and think, “Why aren’t we funding that?”

Now we want to quickly assure readers than we are committed to the honest and valid value of volunteers in addition to adequate funding for needing services. And we know (and have written in depth about this elsewhere) that money alone is nowhere near as powerful as the engagement of concerned individuals in making a difference to solutions that really matter. But we must acknowledge that volunteers are not the solution to lack of funding.

Further, volunteers are as different as people are! Only the right volunteers can be helpful, whether we’re talking about professional credentials or the personality required to work with others. Therefore, “more” of just any volunteer can be a dangerous wish. What is needed is the number of appropriate and dependable volunteers that an organization can adequately support to do the work well. As soon as the number of volunteers exceeds an organization’s capacity to deploy them successfully, the law of diminishing returns takes over.

Why, we ask, is it so rare for academic and governmental researchers to understand that volunteers are not interchangeable parts whose effectiveness automatically increases as their numbers do?

We want to stop asking for “more” volunteers and instead start studying how to have the greatest impact with the right volunteers. Ironically, we believe that once we can increase impact, recruitment of more volunteers who want the same result will follow.

A Preoccupation with the Motivations to Volunteer

If you take a look at the Guidelines for Submission of Manuscripts to this journal, you may be surprised to find the following caveat:

Few volunteer-centered subjects will be rejected outright. However, e-Volunteerism will not accept any articles on "Volunteer Motivation" unless the submission truly introduces some recognizable innovation to this oft-discussed area. Authors are encouraged to be creative and to delve into new areas highlighted with innovative examples.

Examine the academic literature on volunteering for the past 50 years and you will find at least 75% of the studies to be focused on something to do with motivation:  Why do people volunteer at all and how do we motivate them to volunteer more? We find it fascinating that not tapping into people’s motivations properly is so often perceived as the root cause of any issue that organisations have in recruiting volunteers. Is there is a special switch somewhere that, if only we could find it, would immediately make non-volunteers (at least those not active in our own organizations) eager to join up? We think not.

Worse, asking why people volunteer in general implies some sort of universal motivation. That’s why academics feel comfortable in studying, say, hospital volunteers and then extrapolating their findings to volunteers in any other setting. Really? Would research on one component of the paid labor force, such as nurses, be considered equally applicable to the entire labor force, from factory workers to elected politicians? 

Instead of essentially blaming inadequate recruiting on the hard-to-find motivations of volunteers, why not look at whether recruitment challenges can be overcome by fundamental changes to what an organization is asking recruits to do or the obstacles we place in the way of those wanting to give their time? For example:

  • Have we designed volunteer work to be attractive to many types of people? Do we talk about the real difference it will make to those we serve? Is our recruitment message delivered in ways that draw people’s attention to our work?
  • With more and more people wanting short-term volunteering assignments, at least when they first give time, perhaps organisations should stop advertising only long-term, regular volunteering opportunities and challenge the assumptions many people may have that if they give their time they will be locked in for the long haul.
  •  We spend money to raise money, but rarely put sufficient resources into “people raising” activities. We keep seeking new ways to ask for money but exactly how much effort do we invest in volunteer recruitment outreach?
  • Do we minimize the time and effort required in different volunteer roles because we fear scaring people off? Why do we assume no one will want to rise to a challenge – or that someone who isn’t interested in the “easy” role can be baited-and-switched into doing what is really needed?
  • Have we made sure that volunteers benefit as much from volunteering as the organization or clients do? Maybe explaining the sense of enjoyment and fulfilment of volunteering and the benefits on offer – training, support – make a difference to people’s willingness to give (and keep giving) time.
  • Do prospective recruits see an obstacle course of barriers and bureaucracy (such as blanket criminal record checks regardless of whether people will be working with vulnerable clients or not offering to cover out-of-pocket expenses) that seems to question their integrity or trustworthiness in offering to contribute their time?

In other words, motivation is just one part of the answer to overcoming ‘recruitment challenges.’ Looking at motivation alone has not and will not provide answers without a more holistic look at the context of volunteering in specific organisations.

Successful Fundraising Is Not the Same as Successful Volunteer Recruitment

We think that ‘how to get people to give money’ is a different question than ‘how to get people to give time.’ Of course there are connections, but essentially making a financial donation is a decision of the moment and requires a only small amount of action (even if it also needs enough money to give away some of it). The donor’s decision-making tree involves assessing if s/he cares about the cause enough to write a check, and then deciding on the size of the gift.

Sure there are different types of financial gifts such as end-of-life bequests and donations of art or other property, but the only real qualification to become a donor is parting with something of monetary value. The pitch is essentially always “please share your wealth with our cause.”

Volunteering is different in so many ways. The giving of time is monumentally greater than writing a check, even for a simple single day of service. There is true effort involved, personal interaction and work, benefits and consequences. For the time donor, there is nothing easy about it, even if it is enjoyable and worthwhile. Small wonder, therefore, that people think hard about whether they want to get involved.

Then there’s the wide choice of what type of volunteering to do, even in support of a single cause. Not to mention the time spent applying, going through background checks, being inducted and trained – all before doing something directly useful.

Ironically, some cash gifts are “please-go-away” donations, made to stop continuing appeals from persistent fundraisers! The cause is worthwhile, so writing the check is a relatively easy way to do something and forget it. Deciding whether or not to enter the possibly bottomless pit of volunteering is far more complicated.

Conversely, charities that add many more money donors see success, while those that entice many more volunteers may be in big trouble when they realize that now they have to manage them productively.

Stop Studying Volunteer Motivation, Please!

All of which brings us to the purpose of this Points of View: a good rant!  We are over-saturated with studies on volunteer motivation. It’s interesting but non-essential. Every single research study we’ve ever seen concludes with a variation of “people have many different motivations to volunteer.” Of course they do – just as people pick paid jobs and spouses for many different reasons, or like one sport or hobby over another.

The decision of whether to respond to a volunteer recruitment pitch is dependent on lots of things unique to each prospect, to the specific time at which the pitch is delivered, and on what the organization is offering as the volunteer activity. In rapid succession, someone considering whether to volunteer for a specific position is thinking of things like:

  • Am I interested in this?
  • Can I picture myself doing this? With these people?
  • How much time will this take and do I have that time?
  • Will my time make a difference?
  • Will I like this?
  • Will I learn something?
  • What might go wrong?–
  • Will I meet people that I’ll like?
  • Do I really want to do this? Now?

The single biggest reason why someone says yes to a volunteer role is that the role itself seems worth doing, it shows I will make a difference and not waste my time. It’s not the motivation to volunteer, it’s the attraction to this particular offer.

So let’s start studying what makes a volunteer role attractive and what are the best ways to articulate that attraction. The challenge is not to uncover some under-the-surface motivation of people to volunteer for anything at all, but to invite people into activities that they immediately see as worthwhile and do-able for them.

And we don’t necessarily need thousands of volunteers for every organization. We need the right people giving their time and talents to the most important things.

To add or view comments

Mon, 04/18/2016
The angle of the rant is spot-on! The easy measures of the number of volunteers runs parallel to the investment in learning and people development in the corporate world. Most organizations and practitioners measure the butt in the seat or the completion of a class or e-Learning module as opposed to taking on the task of uncovering how much was learned, and how that learning was applied to generate meaningful, observable outcomes for the organization. The truth is, most "managers" will shoot for the easy target. Outcomes are more difficult to measure. Inputs are typically easier to count. On top of that, there is a people component to measuring how a learner applies learning, the same way there is a people component to how a volunteer generates a meaningful difference through the application of their head, heart and hands. I agree with you both. But the focus for development needs to be squarely placed on the leaders of volunteers and the leaders of NPOs and volunteer-supported organizations to be skilled at focusing on the important measures, and then also knowing how to capture those measures. If we could collectively trumpet the more meaningful messages as a unit, a powerful movement, then we would begin to see a shift in this area.

Mon, 04/18/2016
I wholeheartedly agree we need to research the 'right' question. A definition of HR planning can be applied to volunteer resourcing planning as follows: The 'right' number of volunteers with the 'right' skills and attributes in the 'right' place, at the 'right' time and at the 'right' cost. It is (as Barry suggests) within the gift of leaders of volunteering programmes to develop dialogue on the 'right' question, and produce evidence to inform thinking and practice...