Skip to main content

Emphasizing the Personal and Professional Benefits of Service: Encouraging Volunteers to Ask, "What’s in It for Me?"

Emphasizing the Personal and Professional Benefits of Service: Encouraging Volunteers to Ask, "What’s in It for Me?"

As practitioners in the field of volunteer engagement, we all know the extraordinary impact volunteers have on creating real change in diverse communities. We are also familiar with the multitude of altruistic motivations that inspire individuals to step up and lend a hand. At the same time, we also know that volunteering can be a terrific way for individuals to gain benefits both personal and professional. We’ve seen volunteers translate their service into dynamic career paths and make new friends through shared volunteer experiences. Whether they are driven to engage primarily by a motivation to do good in the world or simply to stay busy while they look for paid employment, the end result can be a volunteer experience that is life-changing for both the volunteer and the community.

As volunteer managers, we know all of this. But do our volunteers?

This article by Erin L. Barnhart provides an overview of how volunteer management professionals can play a more active role in encouraging volunteers – both current and new – to explore and identify the multitude of motivations they might have for getting involved. Barnhart explores how leaders of volunteers can help individuals better understand a key element of service: because altruistic and personal motivations and goals are not mutually exclusive, both types of motivations can often lead to more satisfying, meaningful and effective volunteer placements. 


To read the full article

Wed, 08/22/2012
Thanks for putting your thoughts in writing on this topic Erin - the issue of volunteer motivation is very relevant at the moment in the UK. I was drawn to your point that people can discover their altruistic selves by engaging in a volunteering placement where they are seeking to get something out of it. We have a number of 'reciprocal' volunteering initiatives being developed (and promoted by government funding) in the UK (e.g. timebanking), where the emphasis is most definitely on encouraging people to consider 'what's in it for me' if I offer some help. However, this 'transactional exchange' of volunteering certainly has the potential to nurture enduring relationships and encourage 'transformational volunteering'. The key challenge for those involved in leadership of volunteering is to develop insight into how this journey can be encouraged. My reflection on your piece from the perspective of a mainstream volunteering organization, is that systems and cultures need to be in place that can deliver the offer made in the volunteering advert. For example, if skills are sought, line managers have the ability and willingness to invest their time and energy into developing the prospective volunteer; or if social interaction is sought, the opportunities and cultures allow for this without detracting on the organization's work etc.

Fri, 08/31/2012
Volunteering is something that has come easily and naturally to me. Starting as a child, when my mother awoke an awareness in me of finding even small ways to help others, to more formal engagement through the ensuing years. Today, as a volunteer administrator reflecting on decades of volunteer service, it is obvious to me (good'ol hindsight!) that I have phased through all the motivations, sometimes in combination, mentioned in this article. Many thanks to you, Erin, for the reminder that we humans are truly multi-facetted beings. What a beautiful argument is made here for adopting a 'whole-istic' view of individuals who volunteer. If volunteers are the life-blood of our service organizations, then personal satisfaction, in whatever form that takes, is what nurtures their motives. An honest understanding and acceptance of various motives empowers both the person as well as the organization. Win=Win!

Wed, 10/03/2012
Thank you so much, Stephen and Lorraine, for your thoughtful responses to my article! I am so pleased to hear that it resonated with your own experiences and observations.

Sun, 10/07/2012
Hello Stephen Would you be able to share more information, perhaps some links as well, pertaining to the 'reciprocal' volunteering initiatives you mention? Switzerland is certainly a country where volunteering, or civic duty, is deeply entrenched. And, while those that do come forward continue to be generous, there is an overall decline of numbers of people. Our agency is looking into tangible ways towards enhancing the perception of volunteering, as well as the actual volunteer experience, and offering personal satisfaction and rewards. For example: certification (recognized by the HR industry) that records not only positions held, but includes time invested, competencies, skills, performance, etc. Also, with a local barter system for i.e. public transportation passes, entrance to cultural and entertainment events, discounts at restaurants and major stores. Since communities/cities benefit as a whole from the vast underpinning of volunteering activities, our thinking is to draw from within the community/city for providing 'rewards' that give something back to the volunteer. Do I understand correctly from your comments that the matching of rewards/benefits to the diversity of volunteer motives would be an important consideration?

Mon, 10/08/2012

Hi Lorraine, I would suggest that transactional volunteering and transformational volunteering represent points along a spectrum of self-interest to non-self-interest – so involving less or more elements of ‘true altruism’. To give some background on the emergence of transactional volunteering I would refer to the concept of ‘reciprocity’, currently being researched, promoted and funded by NESTA in the UK. Reciprocity is explained as follows: A) Social exchange: designed primarily to motivate people’s behaviour, to meet social objectives. Credits can be issued for volunteering and simply deleted when they are spent. B) Economic exchange: designed primarily to circulate and to meet economic objectives. Credits from volunteering need to circulate like money does and have a continuing existence once they are issued. Examples of initiatives: Timebanks, service credits and similar systems provide a means by which people can make their time and ability to care more available in the community, and also a way to measure and reward what they do – normally on the very simple basis of an hour for an hour. Reward points are simple systems, private currencies which are used to motivate members, customers, citizens or users to shift their behaviour in some way. Example initiative: As an aside, one person's journey of moving from transactional to a transformational volunteering experience is described by Elaine Cohen in her book CSR for HR:

CSR for HR link

One useful quote that helps to differentiate is from Maribel Gaite. “The act of volunteering is not only transactional in that is engages volunteers to join an activity or a cause,” It appears the challenge for transactional volunteering initiatives is to nurture a desire within volunteers to join 'the cause'. This could potentially be broken down into: a) Clarifying what the underlying 'cause' of a transactional volunteering initiative is, and b) Developing processes that help the volunteer to relate to the cause.

Mon, 11/05/2012
Thank you for a great article! I just presented a session called "Volunteer Management: Both Sides of the Coin!” at the Kansas State Animal Response Team Conference on Saturday, and I spoke a lot about volunteer motivation and some of the very issues you cover in this piece. I would like to share the article with the administrator of the conference who is working to grow volunteer programs for KS SART and Sedgwick County Animal Response Team. I think this is a wonderful follow-on to my comments. Often, volunteers seem ashamed of admitting that they hope to get something out of the volunteer experience, and I emphasized in my talk that doing so is completely appropriate and allows for better fit. Your article does a nice job of explaining that. Sincerely, Sheri Barnes Volunteer Coordinator American Red Cross Midway-Kansas Chapter