Friday, May 20, 2011

What does research show about determinants of volunteering?

In the preceding post, What determines who volunteers?, Shona discussed her experience in getting parents to volunteer to help in running a play group. In this post I discuss some Australian research which suggests that volunteers fall into several distinct groups.

A paper by Sara Dolnicar and Melanie Randle, ‘What Moves Which Volunteers to Donate Their Time?’ uses data collected from a national survey of volunteer work conducted by the Australian in 2000 to segment the ‘market’ for volunteer work. The authors use motivations as a basis for statistical techniques that enable them to identify distinct subgroups of volunteers.

Six sub-groups were identified as follows:

• Classic volunteers are involved to do something worthwhile, gain personal satisfaction, and help others. They are older, less frequently active in the workforce, and very active in their volunteering efforts.

• Dedicated volunteers contribute the most hours per year to an average of six volunteering organizations.

• Personally involved volunteers appear to participate in volunteering temporarily, as long as (most probably) their child is part of an organization that relies on parental support.

• Volunteers for personal satisfaction and altruists (two sub-groups) are motivated by gaining their own satisfaction and represent the least distinct segments, with altruists doing the most work in the area of befriending and listening to people.

• Niche volunteers are young, new to volunteering, highly educated and state a variety of rather atypical reasons for volunteering, like feeling obliged to volunteer and having slid into volunteering rather passively, gaining work experience or as a result of religious beliefs.

These research findings are interesting but they don’t shed a great deal of light on the issues that Shona raised. The potential volunteers that Shona was most interested in would be in the ‘personally involved’ sub-group. The question is why some people become more involved than others.

Perhaps the people who are most involved are motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by the feelings they get from volunteering. Recent research findings suggest that it feels good to be good (but I am not sure that we needed researchers to tell us that).

It seems to me that human nature has evolved in such a way that people have a natural desire to contribute voluntarily to activities that are best undertaken collectively. If that makes sense then perhaps it would be more productive to try to explain why a substantial proportion of people are reluctant to volunteer. One idea that has crossed my own mind from time to time as a member of voluntary organizations is that I don’t want to be left ‘holding the baby’. (That expression might not be entirely appropriate in a discussion of volunteering in play groups, but for some reason I can’t resist using it.) It may be worth exploring whether people would be less reluctant to take on onerous voluntary roles if they had some assurance that they could readily pass them on to other members after a defined period.

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