Thursday, 10 September 2015

Please, no more research into volunteer motivation

Just the other day I was browsing volunteer management stories online and came across an article published by ProBono Australia entitled, “QLD to investigate volunteer numbers”.

To put the article in context, earlier this year the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported the first ever drop in the numbers of people volunteering in Australia: 31 per cent of Australians volunteered compared to 36 per cent just four years ago[1].

In response to this decline, the recent ProBono Australia article states that:

Researchers at Cancer Council Queensland and Griffith University have received a $220,000 Australian Research Council grant to improve understanding of motivations for volunteering. Cancer Council Queensland CEO and lead researcher Professor Jeff Dunn AO said the study could help to improve social and economic well-being by stimulating volunteering.

This grant is one of only nine awarded the ARC Linkage Grant nationally (in Australia) in the field of psychology, and one of two in Queensland.

Professor Dunn is quoted as saying:

“Not for Profits such as Cancer Council Queensland rely heavily on volunteers to carry out work in cancer control, ensuring the delivery of vital community services and fundraising events - which is why it’s imperative we invest time and research into this area.”

“Our aim is to address knowledge gaps about short-term volunteering, to improve uptake of regular volunteering, and to evaluate the economic and social impacts of volunteering."

“It is critical that we understand how we can make short-term volunteering a satisfying experience to encourage longer-term relationships."

“The findings will inform recommendations for sectoral policy and practice on volunteering.”

“At the moment, little is known about why people take up volunteering, and the factors that inspire them to volunteer on a short or long-term basis."

I think these aims are laudable ones. Much more work needs to be done to develop better ways of measuring the impact of volunteering. Research that helps Volunteer Managers and volunteer involving organisations transition people from shorter-term to longer-term (i.e. regular) volunteering is also needed. Both are topics I have blogged about before[2].

However, I do have a major issue with that last quote from Prof Dunn, “At the moment, little is known about why people take up volunteering, and the factors that inspire them to volunteer on a short or long-term basis."

What, you mean like these studies and articles?

Or perhaps Prof Dunn means the 260,000 search results from Google Scholar when you type in “volunteer motivation research”!?

The fact is that the motivation of people to volunteer is the most over-researched topic in volunteering research. In my opinion it also one of the least helpful areas of research to help Volunteer Managers in their day-to-day work. Why? Because such studies are so generic they actually help you when you have a mix of people wanting to give time all of whom have differing motivations and interests.

As Susan J Ellis says:

“I question the relevance of the question why do people volunteer?; when asked generically. Too many studies (not only those on motivation, I might add) approach volunteers as if they are indistinguishable from one another and are interchangeable parts of some monolith. After all, do we think it’s interesting to ask, why do people take paying jobs?”

I firmly believe that all anyone needs to know about volunteer motivation can be summed up in five points:

  1. Every person’s motivational mix is different
  2. Every person’s motivation mix changes
  3. Every person has a differing mix of altruistic and egoistic reasons for volunteering
  4. Nobody wants to have their time wasted, not matter how little or how much they give
  5. Everybody who volunteers wants to make a difference

So please researchers, no more studies on motivation.

Please funders, no more giving significant amounts of money to study topics that have been explored to death already.

Instead, I encourage anyone who wants to do some academic research on volunteering to take a look at this blog post by Susan J Ellis from 1998 and the associated article Susan wrote for the Journal of Voluntary Action Research back in 1985!

I’ll end with three questions for you to consider and respond via the comments below:

  1. What research questions would you like to see studied?
  2. If you could communicate with academics, what would you want them to know that would be helpful to you?
  3. Have you read any studies that you were able to apply to your work?

  1. For an excellent analysis of the decline and what it might mean for volunteering in Australia take a look at Volunteering Tasmania CEO, Adrienne Piccone’s, excellent blog post, “Is the decline in volunteering cause for panic?”.  ↩

  2. See these three blog posts for example: Five things I’d like to say about calculating the economic value of volunteering; Volunteering: measuring what counts; and Short-term thinking on long-term volunteering.  ↩