June 2018

Bribing volunteers: Should we be incentivising people for their time?

By Rob Jackson
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Incentives to volunteer appear in different forms: volunteers receiving discounts and offers from shops, businesses, cinemas etc.; access to concert tickets unavailable to anyone but those who volunteer a certain number of hours; and discounts on membership dues for the organisation people choose to volunteer with. Just recently, Civil Society Media reported on a UK volunteering charity that “launched a volunteering reward card scheme”. I’m sure many more and varied examples exist.

I’ve seen leaders of volunteers deeply uncomfortable with these incentives, focusing on their financial value and seeing them as nothing more than bribes. I’ve seen others set aside their initial discomfort because the incentives offered attract new and / or diverse groups into volunteering. I’ve seen others wholeheartedly embrace the idea right from the start, with new initiates being launched around the world.

This issue came up in my mind recently after reading a Blinkist summary of Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive”. Pink argues that we need to change our idea of how people are motivated - surely a key topic for leaders of volunteers! Pink suggests that the carrot and stick approaches of rewards and sanctions continue to dominate the workplace:

Employers who rely on extrinsic motivation work on the premise that their workers, if not driven by the consequences of the stick and the carrot, fundamentally have no enthusiasm for their work and will try to shirk any responsibility; therefore, those in a management position must invariably direct and supervise them.

Sound familiar? That’s pretty close to the attitude many organisations and employees have of volunteers. It certainly chimes with the way modern volunteer management has developed, becoming more formalised and HR-like as it emphasises rules, management, processes and control.

As a counter to this, Pink makes the case for a different approach:

There is another inner force that drives us: the intrinsic Motivation 3.0. When a person finds a job fulfilling, no further reward is necessary.

In other words, if the work we give volunteers meets their motivational needs then that’s all the incentive (and reward) people need to get involved. Consider:

Tens of thousands of people write and edit articles for Wikipedia voluntarily, out of pure enjoyment. They invest valuable working time in this endeavor and receive not even the lowest material reward in return. Although the growth of Wikipedia was dependent on voluntary writers, the project became an enormous success. In contrast, its rival product, Microsoft Encarta, whose development was in the hands of well-paid professional authors and editors, was closed down some years ago.

Pink makes a critical point. We do not get the best out of people - paid or volunteer - if we assume their default setting is “have no enthusiasm for their work and will try to shirk any responsibility”. Yet isn’t that exactly why we have extrinsic incentives to get people to volunteer? We feel the need to dangle some shiny carrot to get people to consider giving us some of their precious time because, if we don’t, they won’t.

Further, dealing with our volunteer recruitment challenges by relying on incentives might actually contribute towards a concerning aspect of society that Pink highlights:

Intrinsic motivation is gradually lost as a person is confronted with a world in which everything relies on extrinsic motivation. As children, we are driven by our inner desires to learn, to discover and to help others. But as we grow, we are programmed by our society to need extrinsic motivations: if we take out the trash, study hard and work tirelessly, we will be rewarded with friendly praise, high grades and good paychecks. Slowly, we lose more and more of our intrinsic motivation. On the path towards adulthood, our natural dedication decreases with age. Striving to change something in oneself and in society is a much healthier and satisfying impetus. For more and more people, such meaningful goals have become their main driving force. We are increasingly committing ourselves to voluntary and unpaid activities.

Wow, that’s pretty powerful! I wonder if those of us in volunteer leadership and management are often barking up the wrong tree. Faced with immediate recruitment struggles, are we taking the easy way out by incentivising people to volunteer? Are we mistakenly placing too much emphasis on policies, procedures, rules and control as the essential tools to get the best from volunteers? Are we seeing success in how many volunteers we have and how many hours they give rather than in an understanding of the true difference they make in our communities?

The more I think about it, I think the answer is yes.

If we want to incentivise people into volunteering, then perhaps we need to steer a different course. A course that offers a more flexible, empowering, rewarding and fulfilling volunteering experience. As Pink puts it:

Intrinsically motivated people want to be able to dictate when they work, what they work on, and what they are responsible for. They do not need to be directed or rewarded, because they enjoy working and do so voluntarily, without demanding anything in return.

Relinquishing control like that is a big shift for many of our colleagues who work with volunteers. It means we, as leaders of volunteering, will have to effect significant cultural and practical change in our organisations. That requires is to cast off the shackles of how we’ve always done things and embrace new approaches.

How exciting!

I’d love to hear from you now:

  • Have you tried incentives to get people to volunteer? What were they? Did they work?
  • Are you trying to implement these kinds of changes in your organisation? What’s working?
  • Do you agree with my thoughts or do you see things differently?

Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Deborah , Volunteer Coordinator , Western Piedmont Symphony , Hickory, NC, USA

All our volunteers choose their own times and take personal initiative. Civic pride and making a difference they can see are motivating.
But, there are still important elements -
Thanks and Recognition.

Is that bribery? I think not.
Actually, you couldn’t pay or bribe professionals enough to do the jobs they take on for our Symphony.

Here’s a corny word - LOVE.
I think it all boils down to loving the mission and loving our volunteers. Finding the passionate volunteer or adjusting the task to enhance their passion is on me. And I love it.

Submitted on
Anonymous, Berkhamsted, United Kingdom

As a volunteer and a paid manager of volunteers I completely agree with this article. I moved from the corporate sector because there was little understanding of my motivations (ie not money or status). As a volunteer I appreciate a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit occasionally but a personal note saying thank you makes my day. We have recently taken away a discount 'perk' for our volunteers for all the reasons described. Except for one or two comments it has gone unnoticed as many volunteers disagreed with it anyway.

Submitted on
Ali Thomas, Head of Volunteering and engagement , Imperial war museums , London, Uk

This is exactly the kind of thought leadership I think we need to embrace to bring about a step change in the voluntary sector - as those who will always strive to empower people through intrinsic values. It comes back to the idea of treating your staff like volunteers rather than your volunteers like staff. I would love to see volunteer engagement specialists at the fore with other leaders to drive this ambition.

Submitted on
Di, Park Ranger, National Park Service, Hagerman, Idaho, USA

I have found that my volunteers like those things that help them do their volunteer job better. For example, when working at Carlsbad Caverns National Park I awarded different colored flashlights to volunteers- ones they could use while volunteering as well as have for themselves. Everyone could have a black park flashlight to use, but only volunteers received blue or gold ones to use and keep. At Casa Grande Ruins in Arizona the tool of choice was hats- everyone had one as part of the uniform but volunteers working more hours got to keep their hat and/or qualified for Tilly hats or other more expensive models. There are carved walking sticks for the volunteers who do more trail work, fancier hydration systems for those who persist in building things, and things of that sort. We want to recognize the work our volunteers do, make it possible for the public to notice our volunteers, and attract new volunteers of course.

Submitted on
Jodie Cook, Volunteer and Training Manager, P3 Charity, alfreton, United Kingdom

I totally agree with Rob. Volunteers do not want incentives and I also agree with Di, it is far better to use the resources that the charity has to ensure that volunteers can do the best within their roles; in P3's case this may be allocating a laptop to a volunteer. A thank you goes a long way and this is something that should be done at National Volunteers Week in a strategic way but also every time a volunteer gives their time. We measure the impact of each individual through discussions at supervision and if any help with motivation is needed I think this is a great tool for volunteers and to demonstrate the power of volunteers across the organisation.

Submitted on
DJ Cronin, Brisbane, Australia

Like many things in Volunteering land I don't think there should be any hard rules. I'm one who prefers taking the middle way. If it works for you fine. If not then that's fine too. Many people volunteer at concerts to get a few free tickets thrown in. Nothing wrong with that. Some people volunteer at sporting events and Olympics to see some sports and or get a cool uniform! This discussion kind of reminds me of an old debate on motivation for volunteering. Is it ok to volunteer for selfish reasons? of course it is as long as the client or the community benefits from that service. I don't think of incentives when I volunteer but if it comes with a discount at stores for volunteers or a movie ticket thrown in then hey - that's a nice bonus!

Submitted on
Anonymous, Hamilton Ontario, Canada

A good conversation, but I have a lot of questions. Did we ask volunteers about incentives? How did they respond? Will we get different types of people if we incentivize our programs? Will we get the type of people that will push our vision and mission forward to the same extent?
When we have been given tickets or other "perks" we offer all our volunteers the opportunity to apply to a lottery or first come first served type of distribution. The folks who apply appreciate the opportunity, but it is a small percentage of our volunteer base. Perhaps, it would serve us better to give incentives to the folks who manage volunteers. They could certainly use some "perks", as they are usually under recognized for the wonderful work they do.

Submitted on
Suzanne Lindquist, Volunteer Manager, Valley Outreach, Stillwater, MN, USA

We surveyed our volunteers (46% return rate). 97% of our volunteers found making a difference and helping others to be extremely or very important in their motivation. When we asked them about forms of recognition 85% liked or loved hearing about the impact of their contributions and 86% liked or loved a verbal thank you.97% of volunteers agree that their volunteering is valuable to our organization. Some of our volunteers don't like the idea of resources being used to thank volunteers. When I am recruiting groups of adults I do let them know that there is a craft brewery right behind us and it is a great way to continue their team-building after they have volunteered.The brewery has given us discount tickets to use at our discretion. I use those when I'm recruiting for an especially difficult opportunity. But I haven't had to use them much. We do recognize our volunteers throughout the year: verbal thank you every time they are here from multiple staff; hand-written thank you card from staff members around the holidays; volunteer recognition event; staff bakes/buys goodies for volunteers during volunteer appreciation week; we have snacks in the building (we're a food shelf - peeps get hungry); etc. For us, I use "when you make a difference in the life of another, you'll be amazed at the difference it will make in you" to recruit. It works for us.

Submitted on
Anonymous, Stuart Florida, USA

We have many volunteers who generously donate their time to our nature center. However there are certain shifts that are always difficult to fill-weekends and afternoons. It has been suggested by volunteers to offer incentives to those who fill these "difficult to fill" positions-raffles for gift cards.

We give everyone a ticket and if you fill one of those shifts then you get an extra ticket.

Thoughts????

Thank you,

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