Why We Volunteer and What All Organizations Can Learn From Our Motivators

In the United States, one in four adults regularly spends some time volunteering. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 62.8 million people volunteered for an organization at least once between September 2013 and September 2014. During that same period, volunteers spent a median of 50 hours on volunteer activities. The type of organization for which the volunteers worked the most hours during the year was most frequently religious (33.3 percent of all volunteers), followed by educational or youth service related (25.1 percent) and social or community service organizations (14.4 percent). The duties that volunteers engaged most frequently were preparing and serving food; fundraising; and tutoring or teaching.*

Thus, we invest a significant amount of our time in performing tasks at a non-profit organization without any monetary compensation. Even more so, as volunteers we often donate additional resources to that same organization such as money, office supplies, or clothing. Frequently, we are highly motivated to do so and enjoy the process. Paradoxically, leaders in a for-profit sector are trying hard, and sometimes unfruitfully, to increase employee motivation and engagement of paid employees.

So, what are the main drivers of volunteerism? How can we use these drivers to boost employee engagement at all organizations?

Scholars have proposed a number of theories to explain why people help others for no benefit. Some say that it is a result of human evolution: before civilization was developed, humans would have to depend on each other in order to survive. While volunteering is no longer essential for individual survival, this instinct still remains. Other studies show that these are the most frequent volunteerism drivers:

Values. People volunteer to satisfy personal values or humanitarian concerns. For some people this can have a religious component, for instance volunteering for church as an expression of one’s loyalty to religious beliefs and values.

Community concern. Some people volunteer to help a particular community, such as a neighborhood or ethnic group, to which they feel attached to and a part of it. Many parents volunteer at their children’s schools as a direct support to teachers, which in turn supports their children’s educational needs.

Need for belonging. As social beings, from our early toddlerhood years, we all need to belong – family, groups, and society. Volunteering provides us with a social opportunity to connect with likeminded people – often people who have similar values, beliefs and may experience similar challenges. This driver is especially significant for the people who otherwise do not have many chances for socializing in professional or personal lives. Mingling with like-minded people also provides a networking opportunity that may eventually turn into one’s career or business opportunities.

Self-esteem enhancement and self-actualization. People volunteer to feel better about themselves or escape other pressures. For some people volunteering is a way to develop new skills, gain new knowledge, and apply that knowledge while serving others.

Giving back. Some people engage in volunteering activities and give back after receiving support from an organization. For instance, someone who was sheltered by a non-profit organization after escaping an abusive relationship may go back and work in the same shelter providing support to other domestic violence victims.

Freedom of choice. We perceive volunteering as a freedom of choice. We have to work in paid jobs to support ourselves and our families. We volunteer not because we have to, but because we want to. I recently encountered a woman who works in a paid position for a social services organization, counseling the homeless. She conveyed that she was looking for an opportunity to volunteer in social services arena. When I asked how it would different from what she does in her job, she said, “You know when you volunteer, it is different. It feels good to know that I can do what is meaningful to me without expecting anything in return.”

These motivators do not represent an exhaustive list. One can have other individual drivers such as adapting to a new geographical area, understanding different culture, or healing pain after the loss of a loved one.

While we all might have different motivators to volunteer, some of volunteerism drivers can be explored and applied at the corporate world. Organizations can be more expressive about their values and culture while hiring so that both an organization and a job applicant can make the best match surrounding mutual beliefs. Providing employees with opportunities to “belong” and socialize is another good way of increasing employee engagement. Professional development and opportunities for cross-training may address one’s need for self-esteem and self-actualization. And honest praise and acknowledgment are also wonderful ways to increase employee’s self-esteem.

Finally, providing employees with “freedom of choice’ is an important performance driver. When we know that we can choose, we are more likely to make a commitment and stick to our choice. Thus, providing employees at all types of organizations with choices may increase their morale and productivity.

* Bureau of Labor Statistics. Volunteering in the United States 2014 http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm