Enhancing Commitment from Volunteers

Non-profit organizations rely heavily on volunteers to perform a number of important roles. They may serve on their board of directors, on an operating committee, in a staff role, or help with an annual event. Unlike a commercial organization where the employees are motivated to a large extent by wages and salaries, non-profit volunteers contribute for non-financial reasons. It is important to understand the leadership tools which can be used to properly motivate these valued contributor’s.volunters

American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a model which is known as the Hierarchy of Needs. His theory is that there are several levels of human needs where each lower level needs to be satisfied before the next higher can be realized. At the base is the physiological, the need for air, sleep, water and food. The next level is safety; security, employment, health and property. Above that is social; friendship, sexual intimacy, and family. The fourth level is esteem; self-esteem, confidence, respect of others, and respect by others.  The highest level is self-actualization which encompasses, morality, creativity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts. This is an interesting theory, but how does it apply to engaging volunteers?

To better understand the volunteer’s commitment, let’s consider the different levels of that commitment. For the sake of better understanding, let’s divide that commitment into three levels; events, staff, and board/committee. Many limit their commitment to a specific event. It could be a fund raiser, a hands-on project, or community activity such as building a new home. A second level gives of their time on a regular basis to serve in a role that is required within the organization. Volunteers at a hospital are examples of this level of commitment. The highest level are those who serve on boards of directors or committees. Committee work might include planning an annual meeting or developing an educational program.

As we consider each level of commitment, let’s ask three questions:

  1. What motivates volunteers to be involved in the activity?
  2. How can this motivation be reinforced?
  3. What to avoid that might demotivate that group?

Commitment to an Event

volunteersPeople who volunteer to help on an event are motivated by some of the following reasons ( Note in parentheses the level of motivation in the Maslow Model):

  • Just an opportunity to get out of the house (social)
  • A way to give back to the community (esteem)
  • Their business may encourage them to be involved (safety & employment)
  • As part of a church outreach program ( social)
  • Being with people (social)

Here are some ideas to reinforce their motivation:

  • Know their names and use them.
  • Show you appreciation during the event,
  • Send a thank you note or email after the event.
  • Be sure they are assigned to a specific task.

Avoid the following mistakes:

  • Provide guidance, but don’t micro-manage their efforts.
  • Talking too much during the beginning of the activity
  • Not showing continuing gratitude
  • Honoring their time. If they commit to two hours then thank them and let them leave after two hours.
  • Not verbalizing clear expectations.

 Commitment to a Staff Assignment

volunteersThose who volunteer to help with tasks within the organization on a regular basis can be a great help to any organization. Volunteers at a hospital or those that staff the Habitat for Humanity stores are examples. Here are some of their motivators and the levels on the Maslow Model:

  • Individuals who are pursuing a career in this type of work may use it to build their resume. Examples are those building their resumes for college or summer employment in an arts program. (esteem)
  • The social interaction and development of friendship. (social)
  • The self-worth from continually working for a good cause. (esteem)

In order to reinforce that motivation;

  • Write letter of recommendation to colleges or potential employers.
  • Provide for an occasional social program, such as a lunch to honor the volunteers.
  • Respect their need for flexibility in their schedules.
  • Call them by name and provide name tags as recognition.
  • Help them understand their important value to the organization.
  • Define the specifics of actionable items within their assignment.

Avoid some of these mistakes:

  • Remember that you are not their “boss”.
  • Feedback on performance is important but provide it in a constructive and positive manner.
  • Don’t take them for granted.

 Commitment to Service on a Board or Committee

Of the three levels of commitment, volunteering to serve on a board or standing committee might be considered the highest. It involves not only a commitment of time but also of intellectual property. Here is where an individual commits to help provide governance and oversight to the organization. The motivators in this situation are:

  • Problem solving (self-actualization)
  • Creativity (self-actualization)
  • Respect from others (esteem)
  • Achievement (esteem)

These motivators can be reinforced by;

  • Recognition of their membership at meetings
  • A plague of appreciation at the end of their term of office
  • Pictures and listing on the organizational website
  • Articles in the newsletter or blog

Avoid these demotivates:

  • Not allowing them to express their opinions at meetings
  • Not including them in the development of plans
  • Not recognizing them much

As we conclude, let’s revisit Maslow’s Pyramid as see how it relates to the commitment of volunteers. The lowest level is physiological and one can assume that none of our volunteers are there for a meal or water. The next level is safety and within that consideration is employment security. Some may volunteer because it is considered part of their job responsibility. One level up is social and that is a factor with those who participate in event or event work in a staff function. Never underestimate the social factor as part of being a volunteer. Esteem and self-actualization become important at the highest levels of commitment. Recognition of an individual’s importance as a board member and providing the opportunity for creative problem solving should never be overlooked.

All the ideas mentioned above are important, but none is more important than continuously inspiring volunteers with the importance of the cause. All the help they provide helps strengthen the organization, but it is the cause or vision which is important, not the organization. It definitely makes a difference and that should be communicated. As leaders and managers of non-profits we may be get too involved in daily activities, but the primary motivator is always the cause.