Understanding the Effectiveness of Volunteers

Study by:
Stephan J. Motowidlo - Rice University
E. Gil Clary - College of St. Catherine
Mark Snyder - University of Minnesota
Job performance is arguably the single most important concept in industrial and organizational psychology. Much of the research and practice in this field focuses on employee selection, training, and motivation with the ultimate goal of improving human performance by encouraging behavior that contributes to organizational effectiveness and discouraging behavior that detracts from organizational effectiveness.
Recent efforts to bring order to research on job performance distinguish two broad types of performance. They differ according to the reason that behavior subsumed under each type helps or hinders organizational effectiveness. One type is called task performance because it refers to behavior that directly helps or hinders the organization transform raw materials into finished goods and services. It involves activities such as selling merchandise in a retail store, operating a production machine in a manufacturing plant, teaching in a school, performing surgery in a hospital, and cashing checks in a bank. The other type is called contextual performance because it refers to behavior that helps or hinders organizational effectiveness through its effects on the psychological, social, and organizational context of work. It involves activities such as volunteering to carry out task activities that are not formally a part of the job, persisting with extra effort when necessary to complete tasks successfully, helping and cooperating with others, following organizational rules and procedures even when personally inconvenient, and endorsing, supporting, and defending organizational objectives.
Behavior in the domain of task performance is usually recognized as a formal requirement of an individual's job. Job descriptions often explicitly stipulate that the jobholder must perform these activities, people who perform them effectively are often rewarded, and people who neglect their task duties or perform them ineffectively are often punished. Behavior in the domain of contextual performance, however, is less likely to be recognized as a formal job requirement. Employees might be rewarded or punished in some fashion for volunteering or refusing to volunteer to do more than formally stipulated in their job descriptions, for helping or refusing to help others in ways not specifically called for in their formal job duties, or for persisting or refusing to persist beyond some minimum level when confronted by difficult obstacles. By and large, however, such rewards and punishments are not as likely to be formally sanctioned as a matter of organizational policy as are rewards and punishments for effective or ineffective task performance. In this sense, therefore, contextual performance refers to behavior that often goes above and beyond formal job expectations.
Elements of contextual performance that reflect volunteering to do more than required, helping others, cooperating as a responsible team-player, and showing loyalty and commitment to the organization have important implications for effective functioning in formal work organizations that people join and participate in for pay. But they also resemble many aspects of behavior that are relevant for participation in volunteer organizations. Just as effective contextual performance refers to doing more than is required in an organization, being a volunteer involves doing more than is required of individuals in society. And, just as effective contextual performance can be thought of as acts that contribute to the social capital of an organization and provide the psychological glue that holds the organization together, volunteerism can be thought of as acts that contribute to the social capital of society and provide the psychological glue that holds society together. 
This underlying similarity between the concepts of conceptual performance and volunteerism points to the possibility of extending research on contextual performance in formal work organizations to performance in volunteer organizations. We have begun this extension by conducting a job analysis to identify specific patterns of behavior that are especially helpful or disruptive in volunteer organizations. We asked volunteer supervisors and administrators to describe occasions when they saw a volunteer work with someone who needed help and was either especially helpful or unhelpful in providing the help that was needed. Their reports revealed three dimensions of volunteer helping performance that we labeled work effort (showing persistence, resourcefulness, and initiative in carrying out work tasks; volunteering to perform tasks that go beyond the call of duty), professionalism (following rules and directions appropriately; maintaining appropriate professional boundaries with clients), and personal skill ( showing warmth, tact, sympathy, sensitivity, and concern for clients and coworkers; working well with others; cooperating and helping enthusiastically). Further analysis of these volunteer performance dimensions suggest that the personality trait, conscientiousness, is associated with volunteer effectiveness in the areas of work effort and professionalism and agreeableness is associated with volunteer effectiveness in the area of personal skill.
This study is the first step toward identifying behavioral patterns and personal characteristics that distinguish highly effective from less effective volunteers. We plan to conduct further research along these lines to develop a base of knowledge that will lead to the development of procedures for identifying and recruiting people most likely to serve effectively in volunteer roles and suggest ways to develop and motivate individuals to become more effective in volunteer roles, through specialized coaching or mentoring, for instance, skilled supervision, or incentive programs that appeal to the particular motivations and needs that volunteers bring to the organization. In sum, volunteer organizations present an exciting opportunity to apply and extend the research methods and knowledge of job performance, especially contextual performance, that have been developed in the field of industrial and organizational psychology. This research direction promises advances in our understanding of behavioral expressions of both contextual performance in formal work organizations and volunteerism in volunteer organizations.
The principal investigators for this project are Stephan J. Motowidlo of Rice University, E. Gil Clary of the College of St. Catherine, and Mark Snyder of the University of Minnesota.