Investigations of the Volunteer Process

Study by:
Mark Snyder - University of Minnesota
Allen M. Omoto - Claremont Graduate University
Volunteerism is a form of sustained helping in which people actively seek out opportunities to assist others in need, make considerable and continuing commitments to provide assistance, and sustain these commitments without any bonds of prior obligation to the recipients of their services.
Guided by a functional approach to personality, motivation, and social behavior and a theoretical conceptualization of the volunteer process that identifies critical aspects of the antecedents, experiences, and consequences of volunteerism, we are engaged in a program of basic and applied investigations, conducted in the field and in the laboratory, to examine the psychology of volunteerism.
In this research, we have examined the personal and social motivations that dispose people to volunteer and that sustain their involvement in such ongoing helping relationships. As well, we are exploring the consequences of volunteerism for volunteers themselves, for members of their social networks, for the recipients of help from volunteers, and for communities and society at large.
Of particular concern to us in these investigations are individuals involved in volunteer service programs that have emerged in the United States in response to the epidemic of HIV and AIDS. Accordingly, to understand the social and psychological aspects of volunteerism, we have conducted coordinated cross-sectional, longitudinal, and intervention studies with AIDS volunteers, persons living with AIDS, and members of volunteers" social networks. In addition, to assess the generality of the findings emerging from this program of research, these studies are complemented by studies of individuals engaged in other forms of helping, pro-social action, and citizen participation.
Our research is guided by a conceptual model that conceptualizes volunteerism as a process that unfolds over time. The "Volunteer Process Model" specifies psychological and behavioral features associated with each of three sequential and interactive stages. At the antecedents stage, we have identified, both theoretically and empirically, personality and motivational factors, as well as characteristics of people"s circumstances that predict who becomes a volunteer and who is most effective and satisfied as a volunteer. At the experiences stage, we have explored the interpersonal relationships that develop between volunteers and recipients of their services and the ways that these relationships lead to the continued service of volunteers and positive benefits to the recipients of their services. We have also examined correlates of satisfaction for volunteers and recipients of service, as well as factors that may make for more pleasant and rewarding experiences (such as organizational integration) and those that detract from enjoyment (such as stigmatization by others). Finally, at the consequences stage, we have studied the impact of volunteer service on the attitudes and behaviors of volunteers, the recipients of their services, and the members of their social networks, including such "bottom line" behaviors as continuing involvement and willingness to recruit others to the volunteer service organization. Thus, research guided by the Volunteer Process Model speaks to the initiation of volunteerism and its maintenance over sustained periods of time.
In our more recent and ongoing research, we seek to place volunteers and volunteer service organizations in the broader context of the communities in which it occurs. Of particular concern to us is the concept of psychological sense of community, which emphasizes how concerns about, and connections to, community can motivate and sustain the actions of its members. In the specific case of AIDS volunteerism, we are examining a conceptualization of community as the broad and diverse community of people concerned with HIV. In this sense, community includes not only people living nearby but also far away, and includes more people than any individual personally knows -- a community including not only those individuals with HIV and at risk for it, but also the members of their social networks, as well as the volunteers and staff of organizations that provide services relevant to HIV. This broad conceptualization of community and the feelings of connection, attachment, and esteem that the individual derives from it are what we mean by psychological sense of community. Data from longitudinal studies of volunteers and the clients they serve, as well as from field experimental investigations designed to create psychological sense of community through theory-guided interventions, are revealing how connecting to communities promotes the effectiveness of volunteers and is beneficial for clients" functioning.
This research has been funded by the American Foundation for AIDS Research and by the National Institute of Mental Health. The Principal Investigators are Mark Snyder at the University of Minnesota ( and Allen M. Omoto at the Claremont Graduate University (
Further information about the Volunteerism Project can be found by visiting its web page at