What's the Mystery about Motivation?

By Susan J. Ellis

As often happens, a graduate student called me last week in the process of doing research. While I always try to be helpful to anyone attempting to study volunteerism, I am near to saturation with always hearing some variation on the theme of what motivates people to volunteer? There is a disproportional number of scholarly articles on why people volunteer--very few of them offering new insight. In fact, just last month I was asked to blind review a submission to a university-based journal that presented the results of a study and concluded that practitioners would be well advised to consider volunteer motivations in matching applicants to assignments. Wow! Why didn't any of us ever think of that?

I have tried to analyze why I react so strongly to this fascination with motivation in academe. Maybe it’s that I am suspicious of the motivation of the researchers! So many of the research studies in volunteerism and volunteer management don't reflect the needs of the practitioners in the field. Rather the studies reflect the researchers' inexperience with real-life volunteers and an inability to frame more complex questions deserving of study.

Here are some of my other concerns as well as some suggestions for worthwhile research:

1. In too many cases, studies are done without a thorough literature search that acknowledges previous studies. So we get repetitive, superficial articles.

2. 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? On the other hand, I think the question of "why" has meaning when asked specifically about one organization, cause or assignment. Therefore, it may be helpful, as a volunteer recruiter, to understand what type of person might be attracted to certain positions. This is part of target marketing.

3. I also think that these motivational studies examine the wrong side of the coin. By questioning volunteer motivation, the emphasis is placed on understanding something inside people that either makes them agree or refuse to volunteer. It is my belief that we ought to focus on what organizations are asking people to do--and how they ask. Maybe prospective volunteers are right to stay away! It may not be an issue of motivation at all.

4. Over time I have become more interested in the question of why volunteers remain committed than why they joined in the first place. This has become even more important as we grapple with who's a volunteer?; and work with such new sources of help as students required to do community service or welfare-reform participants. Since there are external motivators that compel these workers to seek out projects, it is fascinating to watch those who remain with the organization past their required time period. What transforms a mandated worker into a genuine volunteer? And what can we learn from this to improve the way we deal with all volunteers?

Having stated what research I don't find useful, you might want to read what I identified as needing study in the Journal of Voluntary Action Research back in 1985. The majority of topics I proposed then remain untouched.

So the questions of the month are: What research questions would you like to see studied? If you could communicate with academics, what would you want them to know that would be helpful to you? Have you read any studies that you were able to apply to your work?

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint