Another article covering the management of volunteers

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Why people volunteer

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Written by John Berry on 18th April 2024.0

4 min read

Wheelbarrows shelley-pauls-Tsz-4K1sS9w-unsplashMany commentators would say that they simply don’t know why people volunteer. Certainly, it’s complicated. There is no one reason. But as we argue, managers of volunteers must come to some understanding about each of their people.

So, it’s inadequate, a dereliction of duty, to declare that because it’s complicated, they won’t try. Having some understanding of why volunteers turn up and do is essential to volunteer management success.

Moral imperative

At the highest level, some people have a moral imperative to care for others. They have a deeply rooted disposition that demands that they volunteer. But this is an over-simplification begging the question why.

One reason for wanting to take specific action is because the person aligns with, or has solidarity with, a particular social group. This might be the plight of refugees, for example, stemming from a family history. Perhaps their parents were refugees, and they feel a need to help refugees today. Their moral imperative is to contribute to the wellbeing of displaced people.

Or it might be that they had great adventures, feeling great pleasure when undertaking outdoor activities, and they feel a need to enable others to feel likewise. It might be that they enjoy the mountains, and hence logically they join the local mountain rescue team – or at least fundraise for it if they don’t want to rush off and rescue hillwalkers. They can feel good about enabling the pleasure of others.

There are many more proximal reasons – reasons close to the person.

Investment now

Simply, some volunteers come to believe that in doing something worthwhile for others, they will in some way benefit themselves. This matches the idea of exchange suggested above. It’s not as strong as a demand for satisfaction of needs, nor is as strong as a calling. Such volunteers believe that their efforts are not for nothing. They’re investing now for payback later.

This brings us to the coverall notion that the reason why people volunteer is a mix of altruism and self-interest. It’s maybe an overly simplified, all-embracing explanation. Yes, the volunteer feels drawn to help, but they also hope to get something out for themselves.

Then there are the super-practical, distal, or superficial reasons for volunteering.

Practical reasons

Perhaps it’s as simple as needing to bolster the volunteer’s CV. Volunteering with a local relevant CSO will look good when they search for new employment. Or it may be that the volunteer’s social group all volunteer, and hence to be accepted as a member, they sign up too. So, some people volunteer for the kudos, some for the social life, and some through peer pressure.

And of course, many CSOs will provide training. We discussed in another article the Scouts commissioner who did a relatively basic job when employed but was trained in management as a volunteer. Simply, some people volunteer because the CSO will provide valuable skills and knowledge.

Why people volunteer is complicated. There’s seldom a single reason. If asked, many volunteers will respond that they don’t know why. Perhaps they are driven by some force that they can’t explain. Perhaps it’s in search of some reward. But it’s never adequate for the manager of volunteers to accept that when asked, the volunteer shrugs and can’t say.

Why people volunteer

The manager must gently enquire, observe, and listen, and build a picture for each volunteer. Simply, if the manager doesn’t have a clue about why their volunteers turn up and do, they’ll be incapable of securing their CSO’s sustainability, and will be open to surprises. And when it comes to sitting with volunteers to discuss plans and objectives, they’ll be making huge assumptions about what’s possible and what the volunteers are prepared to sign up to.