Archive for February, 2009

Real reasons why people don’t volunteer

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Deborah Finn, who moderates the Mission-Based Massachusetts yahoogroup, pointed us to a blog entry about Information Age volunteerism by Ben Rigby, a cofounder of the Extraordinaries. It combined with the comments are interesting. Like the commenters, I think that a combination of new and old ways of volunteerism is needed.
I also posted this comment about real reasons why people don’t volunteer:
I founded and run People Making a Difference ( in Boston to remove the common barriers to direct service volunteerism while providing effective recruiting and volunteer group management services that bring real value and non-redundant assistance to the mostly small charities we serve.

Though I am quite familiar with the traditional, survey responses as to why people say they do not volunteer, I no longer believe these for the most part. It seems like respondents are giving the same excuses because the survey instrument offers these standard, superficial choices about not having time, being unasked, etc. when the underlying reason is that most who do not volunteer have yet to become motivated. As Ben points out, if people have time to watch tv (I’ll add: and they are not responsible for caring for family members), then most can and will make time to help with something for which they are passionate (cause or tasks) and for which the experience is positive. And the easier the entry point, the easier it is to get started.

Motivation is a shared responsibility between nonprofits and potential volunteers. As others have already pointed out, nonprofits need to define and to articulate accurately what help is needed, provide the internal support to make it possible, structure/market the opportunities attractively like the Extraordinaries is attempting, and select people best suited to help. (Few for-profits expect their employees to be productive as quickly and stay on staff with as little as the nonprofit sector allocates for volunteers, whether in strategic planning, budgets, supervision, work space, etc.) Likewise, potential volunteers need to figure out, sometimes by trial and error, what inspires them and how they can contribute meaningfully. When they find a rewarding volunteer position, most people will stick with it, finding a way to contribute unless their personal circumstances change (commonly in Boston, they move too far away).

I admit that I am concerned about the statistical “problem” with low volunteer retention, but I wonder if this is partly a side effect of the trial and error when people seek a “volunteer placement of a lifetime.” Just as most people date before they marry, moving on to volunteering somewhere else is not necessarily a sign that the original volunteer position was bad, just that the fit perhaps wasn’t great for that person. And while the nonprofit and person could do more to try to “save the marriage,” the easiest path is usually to split up and try again. (Of course, if the experience is really horrible, some people give up and don’t try again.) People often become unmotivated because they don’t understand how they make a difference, so PMD project managers articulate this a lot before, during, and after people volunteer, which seems to work, but is much easier to implement during 3-7 hour, one-time volunteer experience as compared to once every week.

One last thing: We should make entry to volunteerism easy, but also maintain high standards. At PMD, while we do let anyone sign up 10-31 days before a PMD service project, we promote “informed and responsible volunteerism” to raise the proverbial bar on one-time volunteers since we are investing limited resources into organizing high quality, free service opportunities for both participants and recipient charities. I often talk/blog about doing more good than harm, like the direct consequences of not showing up as committed, and so we have 90-100% participation. No matter what volunteers are expected to do, all nonprofits should set high standards out of respect to the people, places, and others we aim to assist, and explain our rationale. Implementation will vary from requiring 40 hours of technical training with certification to basic reference checking about people’s ability to do what they say they can do to help, then supervision with checks and balances to review volunteer performance along the way.