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From intention to action: Considering motivation in volunteer engagement

Marisa A. Coyne

Group of people with arms around each other wearing shirts that say "volunteer"
Many youth-serving organizations engage volunteers to achieve their missions. Recent research found that the intention to volunteer is at an all-time high. Despite these good intentions, many current and potential volunteers are experiencing overwhelm due to current social, economic and environmental conditions. How can volunteer engagement professionals transform intention to volunteer into action?

Volunteer motivations

Volunteer motivations research can be an important clue to guide our strategy and process. The Volunteer Functions Inventory (VFI) is used widely throughout youth-serving programs and outlines the following motivations driving individuals to volunteer:
  1. Values – a way to express one's altruistic and humanitarian values
  2. Career – a way to improve career prospects 
  3. Social – a way to grow and strengthen social ties
  4. Understanding – a way to gain knowledge, skills, and abilities
  5. Enhancement – a way to help oneself grow and develop
  6. Protective – a way of distracting oneself against the difficulties of life or offsetting feelings of guilt about one’s privilege

Lessons from Extension volunteer research 

In 2018, the University of California studied volunteer motivations across statewide programs including 4-H and Master Gardener. They found that all volunteers were strongly motivated by the desire to make a positive impact (values) and the desire to gain knowledge and skills (understanding). The social motivation of youth-serving volunteers exceeded that of other volunteers, while the lowest score across these programs was related to career motivation.

Motivation in motion

Designing recruitment and retention strategies with motivation in mind can support volunteer engagement professionals as they look to grow their communities at a time when the desire to volunteer is high.
  • Interested in attracting values-motivated volunteers? Be sure to communicate program impacts with stakeholders of all kinds, including current and prospective volunteers. Provide volunteers with the opportunity to share their stories with community leaders, including boards of directors.
  • Interested in retaining understanding-motivated volunteers? Lead with information about the professional and personal development opportunities your organization offers. Provide additional training opportunities as a means of volunteer recognition.
  • Interested in building infrastructure to support career-motivated volunteers? Consider addressing leadership development and resume building. Offer written references and relevant titles to successful volunteer leaders. Connect with local businesses to explore the possibility of incentivizing volunteer participation amongst current employees.
  • Interested in recruiting socially motivated volunteers? Consider recruiting volunteers in pairs, triads or groups.  
While most organizations are interested in building engagement strategies around the motivations of current volunteers, this information is only part of the story.  Prospective volunteers may have motivations not well represented in your current volunteer population. In the case of the UC research above, career motivation was a lower priority for current volunteers (compared with values and understanding), and therefore represented an opportunity to grow the volunteer community. 

Finally, addressing volunteer motivation alone is not sufficient for growing, diversifying, and equipping volunteer communities. The Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA)’s 2021 report titled “Co-Creating Racial Equity in Volunteer Engagement” contains recommendations for addressing the full complex of barriers to engaging volunteers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. 

Which of the motivations identified in the Volunteer Functions Inventory (VFI) is your volunteer system built around? Which motivations are underrepresented or under-explored in your volunteer system? What steps could you take, using the framework of volunteer motivations, to engage new volunteers or reengage current volunteers?

-- Marisa A. Coyne, Extension educator and volunteer systems director

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  1. It will be interesting to see how the newest generation of adult volunteers--the Gen Zers--will affect how organizations engage volunteers.

    1. Great point!

      The motivations of Generation Z (generally considered to be born in the mid-1990s through the early 2010s) are understudied. Early research, however, shows great promise for this newest generation of volunteers. Pew Research found that in 2021, one-third of Gen Zers had personally taken action to address climate change. A global survey conducted in the same year found that nearly 80% had personally taken action to address racial discrimination and inequality. Is Gen Z poised to outpace Gen X as the generation with the highest rates of volunteerism?

      Cooperative Extension colleagues in the Western Region (including California, Washington, etc.) are studying the motivations and satisfaction of Gen Z volunteers and identifying recommendations for volunteer systems professionals looking to recruit and retain this seemingly highly engaged age cohort. More to come!

      Thank you,

    2. As we look at our systems in place for volunteer recruitment I wonder in what ways we could establish more defined cohorts that embed a relational component to the volunteer service. This would allow us to hit a number of these motivations through one intentionally designed experience.


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