Why people volunteer

Understanding why people volunteer is one of the biggest topics of interest to policy makers, organisations and researchers. If politicians and policy-makers want more people to volunteer, then they need to know what motivates people to give their time for free. Equally, organisations may use this information in terms of their own recruitment and retention policies.

Increasingly organisations are making their adverts for volunteer recruitment more sophisticated and specialised, based on what they know about their target audience – for example highlighting how volunteering can be useful for work experience and CVs, or perhaps for making friends or for gaining health benefits. These aspects are based on an understanding of why people volunteer and the differences between different age groups or different ethnic groups.

Much discussion on people’s motivation at work has traditionally focused on paid staff (viewing pay as an important incentive to work), which may not be that helpful in understanding volunteers’ motivations. Is there something different about volunteers’ motivations and does this mean that working with, and managing them also needs to be different?

Activity 3

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes.

Watch the following video and make notes on the volunteers’ reasons for volunteering. Note whether they are similar to your own (if you volunteer or are thinking about doing so).

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  • Magda says that she started volunteering for the YMCA because her mother originally signed her up for an exchange programme in her native Poland. After that she volunteered and then worked for the YMCA and ultimately became a trustee. Clearly she became increasingly committed to the organisation and so as opportunities arose to contribute, she took them.
  • Amy’s commitment to girl guiding stemmed from having been a girl guide herself and being keen to give something back. She is passionate about getting involved with the programmes for empowering young women.
  • Linda has a range of volunteering roles and her motivations are a mix of wanting to contribute to clubs and leisure activities she was involved with. She highlights wanting to feel part of big occasions and with smaller events, ensuring that they happen.

Having an existing interest or commitment to an organisation as a member often encourages people to volunteer.

As well as considering why people volunteer, it’s useful to think about why people stop volunteering as this has implications for organisations’ retention of volunteers. Around a fifth (22%) of those who had not formally volunteered in the last 12 months had done so at some point within the last five years. By far the most commonly cited reason for respondents to stop volunteering was lack of time due to changing home/work circumstances (48%). The least frequently mentioned were issues relating to volunteer management, including not feeling that their efforts were always appreciated, over-bureaucracy of volunteering, bad organisation of the group/club/organisation and not getting asked to do the things they’d like to do (NCVO, 2016).

Volunteering in order to gain experience

Many people volunteer because they want direct experience of the sector in order to boost their CVs when searching for paid work. This could be to help them see whether they want to work in the sector, to try out a particular role or to experience what it is like working for a particular organisation that they support. In some areas of the voluntary sector, for example heritage or international development, volunteering is often a prerequisite for getting paid work.

Many organisations offer internships or placements. Committing to a few days a week for a few months can allow volunteers to get involved in a substantial project and they might still be able to do another paid job around it. However, many people do not have the resources to take on these roles and ethical concerns have arisen around the use of interns, particularly if the roles do not offer any formal training, expenses or a basic stipend. There are calls for organisations to improve in this area so that good opportunities are available to all people, regardless of background and income.

If you are working or studying in the day time then many voluntary organisations involve volunteers in the evenings and weekends as well as in doing one-off fundraising or helping events (for example street clean-up). Other organisations engage volunteers to do activities from home, perhaps helping via social media or looking after a website. Becoming a trustee would also be very rewarding and a relevant experience. Although it is a big commitment and there are legal responsibilities, it can be organised flexibly to fit around other work or family roles.

If you are looking for a volunteering role, one useful website is www.do-it.org.uk [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Organisations’ own websites will also advertise volunteering opportunities, or you could approach organisations directly with a statement about what you could offer in terms of your skills, experience and time commitment.

What are volunteers doing?

3.2 Recruitment of volunteers