Promoting Service to the Community: Volunteers and Volunteer Organizations

Study by:
Mark Snyder - University of Minnesota
E. Gil Clary - College of St. Catherine
For nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteers for the delivery of services, the management of the volunteer workforce is critically important, and involves the recruitment of volunteers, placement of volunteers into jobs or roles, maximizing the satisfaction and effectiveness of the volunteers, retaining volunteers over time, and promoting the competent performance of volunteers. Although many factors contribute to the success or failure of these management activities, one key feature that is common to all of them is the motivations of volunteers.
A central goal of this research program has been to discover people's motives for volunteering, and to explore the role of motivations in the processes of volunteering. Known as the functional approach to volunteers' motivations, the theory that guides this research begins with the assumption that people are active and goal-directed, and that, in the case of volunteering, people do so in order to meet important needs and goals. Moreover, this approach assumes that different people may engage in the same volunteer activity, but do so in order to fulfill different motives. Finally, the functional approach suggests that important outcomes -- such as recruitment, satisfaction, effectiveness, and retention -- depend on a matching of the motivational concerns of individuals with situations that can satisfy those concerns.
With the foundation provided by the functionalist perspective, research has identified a set of six fundamental personal and social functions served by volunteering which can be measured with the Volunteer Functions Inventory (VFI), a reliable and valid instrument that assesses each of six functions served by volunteering.
In our research, we have used the VFI successfully to measure the motivations of volunteers of diverse ages involved in diverse forms of volunteering, as well as to tap the potential motivations of prospective volunteers. Moreover, research employing the VFI has systematically tested propositions of the functional theory of volunteerism, and demonstrated the ways in which these motivations foreshadow important events in the "life history" of a volunteer:
  • predicting which kinds of persuasive messages will be most effective in recruiting people to become volunteers (specifically, those that tap motivations of personal relevance to prospective volunteers);
  • predicting which volunteers will ultimately experience satisfaction with their volunteer service; and
  • predicting those who will form intentions to continue their service over extended periods of time (in each case, it is volunteers whose experiences " match" or fulfill the motivations that brought them into service who are likely to be satisfied and who intend to continue their service).
Just as, in the basic scientific research, it has been possible to use knowledge of volunteer motivations to specify the conditions necessary to successfully recruit volunteers and to predict their satisfaction and intentions to continue their service, it should also be possible to demonstrate that it is possible to use the knowledge from this basic research to design strategies to optimize the recruitment, placement, performance, and retentions of volunteers in volunteer organizations who confront these challenges on an ongoing basis. Such "real world" applications have the potential to enhance the quantity and quality of volunteerism, thereby producing a committed, satisfied, and effective volunteer work force. And a committed, satisfied and effective volunteer work force represents one important opportunity for individuals to contribute to and enhance their communities.
The principal investigators in this research program are Mark Snyder of the University of Minnesota and E. Gil Clary of the College of St. Catherine.