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How To Motivate Volunteers With Behavioral Science

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Sep 08, 2020

Julian Hazell, an associate at The Decision Lab, sat down with Jayden Rae, a senior consultant with expertise in non-profit coordination, to discuss some of the following topics:

  • Why people like volunteering
  • Why behavioral insights might be necessary to understand why people volunteer
  • The benefits of altruism
  • Motivation for volunteers and challenges to the rational actor model of behavior
  • How we can make a difference in the topics that matter to us
  • Concerns surrounding voluntourism
  • How to convert passion into action


Julian: Thank you for taking the time to sit down and chat. To start, how do you define volunteering?

Jayden: Volunteering usually refers to an action that is intended to help others. In this context, I’m referring to formal volunteering arrangements. For instance, people who are volunteering for non-profit or charitable organizations, not other forms of unpaid work such as looking after a family member An individual performs this act without any expectation of monetary compensation or gain. 

Jayden: Volunteer activities necessarily involve some level of freewill – the volunteer actively wants to engage in the behaviour. You usually need to be in a privileged position to be able to volunteer, as you’re giving up time you could otherwise spend on paid work or leisure activities. Sometimes, people will be doing unpaid labor under the veneer of volunteering, yet that isn’t a product of free will. 

Julian: People sometimes have a perception that neoclassical economics says that we are only self interested and only care about maximizing our utility. Do you find that to be convincing?

Jayden: I think classical economic models can explain some things, but often they can’t explain  human behavior. As we now understand quite well with some teachings from behavioral science, individuals are not rational actors. 

Jayden: And there are many reasons why we may not act in a way that economists might predict. A big reason for this is that we’re a social species that forms complex communities. We never make decisions that are truly independent – they’re shaped and informed by our environment. 

Jayden: I think volunteering is a good example of acting in a way that economists may not predict – namely, that people respond to monetary incentives. A lot of the reasons why people might engage in unpaid labor are associated with the social role they play in their community. Also, intrinsic and altruistic motivations might provide utility to individuals in a way that economists wouldn’t necessarily predict (as those who volunteer are not being strictly monetarily compensated), so it can be tricky to measure using typical neoclassical models. 

Julian: So you think people can derive utility from altruism itself?

Jayden: Neoclassical economics “selfish” model of utility does not allow for the fact that most of us in society care about the well-being of others. However, you can imagine revised models where individuals derive value from prosocial behavior. In fact, there are things called “benevolent utility functions.”  I’ll get to some of the reasons why later, but there are many benefits that people receive as a result of volunteering that can incentivize them to engage in it. 

Julian: Okay, interesting. So many people in our current day and age feel really burned out from being overworked, or from academic obligations as well. What are some reasons that, in spite of our busy schedules, we should make more of an effort to volunteer?

Jayden: There are a ton of reasons why volunteering offers positive direct and other spillover effects to the person volunteering. The first main outcome of volunteering is increased happiness and life satisfaction, which can arise when you have the opportunity of aligning your actions to your values. Not everyone can find a paid job that fulfills their interests in contributing to a greater social good and playing a role in their community. For example, you may care a lot about the environment but work for an accounting firm. Beyond taking action in your individual life to minimize your carbon footprint, you could volunteer for a local conversation group. 

Jayden: Volunteering then can become an outlet to fulfill your social function in a way that will actually make you happier.This has been proven empirically in psychological studies that have demonstrated that the act of volunteering in itself can make you happier in the long run. For instance, a metastudy published by the University of Exeter found that volunteering had favourable effects on depression, life satisfaction, wellbeing. 

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Jayden: It has also been shown that even volunteering can actually make you physically healthier.  So of course the question is, are people who volunteer just generally happier and healthier, and this is a reason why they volunteer? One study from the University of Michigan involving over 3000 individuals controlled for self-selection effects and still found that over time volunteering could actually lead to healthier outcomes and decreased premature mortality rates. Mortality risk was reduced even more for each hour older adults volunteered per month.

Jayden: So I think there are a lot of reasons for volunteering based on those results. But of course, volunteering, as I mentioned earlier, is a privilege. It requires some level of free time. And people who are going to be filling volunteer roles must have the financial and physical freedom to be able to do so.

Julian: Okay. So what are some important behavioral motivators for getting people to actually volunteer?

Jayden: People often ask: Is volunteering simply a product of altruism? It’s important to emphasize that not all volunteering is altruistic and not all of altruism is volunteering. But altruism definitely plays a role, and there’s a really strong, positive association between altruism and volunteering. 

Jayden: One of the first reasons that behavioral science offers to explain why people volunteer is due to something called a values function. In simple terms, a value function means that individuals are drawn to participate in volunteer work to express and act on values that are important to them. 

Jayden: If we’re really driven towards a particular cause, such as working with people with disabilities, and it’s something that we feel is important and it makes us feel happy and fulfilled, we will want to  seek  out a role where we can do good with those populations. 

Jayden: The second reason people volunteer is due to something called an understanding function. This suggests that people will volunteer to increase their knowledge or skills in a particular area. For instance, someone might volunteer for an organic farm because they’re interested in developing skills around organic farming or gardening.

Jayden: The third reason is called an engagement function, essentially, we seek out activities which connect us with others. This makes sense because volunteer opportunities are typically quite social in nature. You get to meet people who you wouldn’t otherwise interact with, and that can enhance your own psychological development. 

Jayden: The fourth reason is career related. There’s a social norm around volunteering, such that it is something that is a good thing to do. A lot of employers and schools actually look for volunteer experience.

Jayden: I think those are some of the main reasons why people might volunteer. Of course, there may be other ones as well.

Julian: So if I’ve found something that I’m passionate about and I want to make a difference in, how can I be sure that volunteering is actually the best way of doing so? What about just donating money?

Jayden: Yeah, I think that’s quite an interesting question. The mere prospect of “making a difference” at the individual level requires a lot of self reflection about what your best levers of change are. If you don’t have enough time to actually make a real commitment and contribute to an organization, it probably makes more sense to give money. But if you’re interested in realizing some of the benefits of volunteering, a study at the University of Exeter showed that people who actually volunteered their time were more likely to feel better about the action than people that gave money. It had longer term effects on indicators like wellbeing and self-efficacy.

Jayden: One thing that’s kind of interesting to observe is that usually it’s not really ‘efficient’ in an economic sense for someone to volunteer their time. So for example, if a consultant is making $100 an hour in their usual job and they dedicate an hour of their time to volunteer, it probably would have been more valuable for them to donate, say, $50 to the charity in terms of the actual opportunity cost. There should be some level of alignment around what  skills  you  can offer, what the organization needs, and the role you play as a volunteer.  And also, are you able to measure the impact of that? That is a key consideration to keep in mind. 

Julian: What behavioral science insights can organizations use to generate social change and encourage volunteership?

Jayden: This connects closely to the reasons I previously outlined about why people volunteer in the first place. Organizations should understand why their current volunteers are attracted to working with them so that they can optimize the benefits and advertise those to potential future volunteers. So for example, if people who volunteer are most interested in developing a specific skill, the best thing they can do is advertise opportunities around skill development to provide ample opportunities for volunteers to develop their own capacity and self-advocacy. To the extent volunteer organizations can promote prosocial opportunities for volunteers to connect with the community and one another, it can foster intrinsic motivation.

Julian: Let’s pivot a bit to talk about voluntourism. So voluntourism is the act of going abroad to volunteer in different countries, which are often low-income. Some people have criticized this quite extensively. I just wanted to get your opinion on this: How can someone be sure that they’re actually volunteering both effectively and ethically, and that their efforts are actually wanted by the people that they are helping?

Jayden: I’ll start off by being generous and suggest that many people end up volunteering due to their own naivité. Often, voluntourism trips are branded in a way that makes it appear as though there is a clear cause for which you can directly have a positive impact. So, I believe.  there’s often a lot of willful ignorance on the part of the participant. 

Jayden: To avoid situations where harm is done  as a result of any sort of volunteer,  I think individuals must  be critical and really deliberate about why they’re volunteering in the first place and where they’re going to be volunteering. I would suggest a couple of questions people should ask themselves before they engage in any volunteer activity, whether it’s voluntourism or otherwise. 

Jayden: First, look at the governance structure of the organization. Who is running the organization, who comprises the board of directors, how is the organization spending its money? Usually organizations will release a financial statement every year if they’re registered, and even taking a quick look at that gives you a useful glimpse into how they’re managing their income and resources.

Jayden: Second, deeply consider what causes or issues are driving you to volunteer in the first place, and whether the organization you’re considering volunteering with actually aligns to your values in a way that is authentic. 

Jayden: Third, consider what you have to offer. Do you have specific skills that will benefit the organization you’re looking to work with? If you’re going to an orphanage where you’re going to be reading a book for two hours, is that really the most important skill you can offer and is that something that this organization would need? And will you be taking the job of someone who is local, who would otherwise be earning income from what you’re completing through your volunteer involvement. 

Jayden: Fourth, look for organizations that are taking an evidence-based approach by measuring the impact of their actions over time. If you’re volunteering for an organization that has no mechanism to quantitatively measure their direct impact on the community, the spillover effects, or the negative outcomes of their work, that’s definitely a red flag and it’s something you should be looking out for early on.

Julian: Let’s say someone is really passionate about a specific issue or a specific cause but they don’t know who to reach out to, and they’re worried that the first organization they would find might not be super effective. What is a way that people can take an evidence based approach to finding out where they’re going to be the most effective in a cause that they care about?

Jayden: This is precisely why it’s so important to do your background research. Look at the financial statements of the organization, look at their past impact reports and see what types of activities they’re conducting in certain focus areas.  If you have the opportunity, it’s always a good idea to talk to someone within the organization in an informal way to inquire about the role they see volunteers playing in their organization, about the relationships they have with other organizations, and what they identify as the key barriers or challenges to fulfilling their mandate. Often, this informal interaction piece is crucial to determine how the organization is actually operating, and what frustrations you might experience as a volunteer. 

Julian: What would you say to those who feel that they are just a small fish in a big pond and who feel that they are passionate about a big problem, but they are not necessarily big enough or influential enough to solve it themselves? How would you address feelings of paralysis, when we feel overwhelmed at the size of the problem and have no idea where to begin?

Jayden: I worry that the small fish big pond sort of thinking can lead us down the path of empathy. Believing that the individual has no impact on system level outcomes can become an excuse to not act at all. 

Jayden: I would offer a different type of thinking. Perhaps, when an individual dedicates their talents, time, and energy, there could be a cascading effect when they merge forces with similarly passionate individuals. Real change tends to happen when a group of people come together. It’s about community-level mobilization, which necessitates the initial individual-level action. 

Julian: What are some final tips you have for our readers who are passionate about different areas and actually want to make an impact? What are some tangible things that they can take away from this and go out and do right away?

Jayden: There are a couple of key things. I think the first one is to do a self assessment of the types of skills that you can offer and find the ones that give you a lot of fulfillment and are also helpful for the organization you care about. So for example, if you love to write, research organizations that might benefit from having someone who works on the publication or communication side. If you’re trained as an accountant, you could do wonders for a small charity that is otherwise having a hard time managing it’s bookkeeping. Sustainable and impactful volunteer relationships should be reciprocal. 

Jayden: The second one is to consider the various levels of change available to you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be volunteering for multiple hours a week. It could be making an annual charitable donation for example (some apps like RoundUp make this so easy you’ll probably forget about it), or it might be volunteering for a political campaign. There are a lot of ways that you can contribute to civil society and engage in civic life that isn’t necessarily working at a soup kitchen. 

About the Authors

Jayden Rae portrait

Jayden Rae

Jayden has a particular interest in studying how public policy can be used as a tool to help individuals and organizations make decisions to protect the environment. She has previously worked in the domain of environmental policy at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. She is a founding director of the environmental non-profit Climatable, which focuses on engaging Canadians in climate change action. Jayden received her bachelor’s degree from McGill University in environment and political science.

Julian Hazell portrait

Julian Hazell

McGill University

Julian is passionate about understanding human behavior by analyzing the data behind the decisions that individuals make. He is also interested in communicating social science insights to the public, particularly at the intersection of behavioral science, microeconomics, and data science. Before joining The Decision Lab, he was an economics editor at Graphite Publications, a Montreal-based publication for creative and analytical thought. He has written about various economic topics ranging from carbon pricing to the impact of political institutions on economic performance. Julian graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Management.

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