“Volunteer Engagement” – Shayne Shepherd

May 19, 2014

There are several ways that non-profit organisations can seek to improve volunteer engagement.

Shayne Shepherd


One of the biggest challenges for a non-profit organisation can be keeping their volunteer base active and engaged in their activities. A strong understanding of what motivates volunteers is essential for facilitating their meaningful participation in a non-profit organisation.

Engaging someone to do something for their own reasons is much more effective than trying to force them to do it for your reasons. This understanding is quintessential in ensuring long-term relationships with highly engaged volunteers. Stanley R. Parker has classified volunteer motivations into four areas: altruistic (unselfish), rewards based (expecting [derivative] future rewards), cause-serving (advancing religious, moral or political causes) and leisure (personal enjoyment & relaxation) (Parker, 1997). An awareness of these motivations can assist non-profit organisations to facilitate high volunteer engagement.

What are the challenges?

Volunteer engagement starts with obtaining the right people. Achieving this requires knowing what is needed from volunteers to help carry out the organization’s tasks. From there, it is useful to segment the potential volunteer population and utilize demographics to target those individuals or groups that would offer the best fit for the organization’s needs. These groups become the organisation’s target segments.

At the risk of oversimplifying potential target segments, the following general age-based observations may be useful. People in their late teens and early twenties, particularly students, have flexible time and more of it to offer to non-profits. They are also more technologically savvy than most other age groups. Where flexible time and technological know-how are important to an organisation, this age group would be an appropriate segment to target.

When the volunteer position requires more experience, but is less time intensive, working age people at the younger end of the spectrum (those in their late twenties through to late thirties) can offer much to the needs of the organisation through skills based volunteering.

For governance and guiding support, help can often be gained from people with substantial experience in those particular areas of volunteer-need. An example would be reaching out to senior accountants or finance professionals to provide financial acumen to the organisation’s Board of Directors.

Lastly, a growing group that has much to offer to non-profit organizations are retirees. With significant professional experience and greater leisure time, many retirees are increasingly keen on making a difference to society through involvement with charities and socially conscious enterprises. They continue to invest much of this leisure time to mastering new technologies as well.

A simple example to illustrate the benefits of segmenting can be seen in a recent engagement undertaken by 180 Degrees Consulting. The client was in need of skilled volunteers to help upgrade some of their facilities. The consulting team identified young tradespeople within appropriate geographic areas as a target segment to engage. With the absence of family demands, this group had more time available, which gave them the opportunity to further develop their trade skills. In this way, the client was able to use both rewards-based and altruistic motivations to obtain assistance for the renovations.

Once the appropriate target segments have been identified, different communication channels will be more appropriate than others to connect with the particular target groups. Referring back to our age groups, if you were seeking a board member for your organization, you may consider posting this on your website and Facebook page. However, you may find it worthwhile to place an advertisement on LinkedIn that is more targeted, or in a business publication. These more targeted forms of communication are more likely to connect with the people that the organization needs, and who are also interested in furthering the organization’s cause. The key to identifying the right channel is to put yourself in the shoes of your target segments and identify the media that they use every day.

Training: enabling development for joint benefit

Training may not be required for every type of volunteering activity that the organization needs. However, it can be a powerful tool in giving volunteers something of value in addition to the positive association they will receive from giving back to the community. This makes it a highly valuable rewards-based motivator, but can also be a trigger for other motivators.

Of particular interest in this respect is the study that Martha L. Barnes and Erin K. Sharpe completed on Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto, Canada, an area that has attained national and international recognition for volunteer and community engagement. (Barnes and Sharpe, 2009). Dufferin Grove Park is a 14.2 hectare urban park that engages volunteers across a wide variety of park activities. It was found that where volunteers could develop their skills, they had higher engagement with the Park’s activities. Examples were seen in the building of a cob structure and doing outdoor theatre shows. In these experiences, the volunteers were able to build their skills by taking ownership of these initiatives, which acted as a reward for their contribution. However, this was also their preferred way to spend their leisure time and pursue their hobbies, which further enhanced their engagement and commitment levels. Barnes and Sharpe observed that where a non-profit organisation better understands the motives of target groups and, where possible, individual volunteers, it can foster higher engagement by effective needs satisfaction.

In 2011, 180 Degrees Consulting established a volunteer management framework for an Australian non-profit organisation. The framework involved training in a more formal way than that experienced by those involved at Dufferin Grove Park, but had similar successes. The training involved developing people’s public speaking skills to enable them to contribute to the organization’s goals. In receiving this training and practicing the tools provided, the attendees received a rewards based motivator for their involvement, but also were exposed to the raison-d’être of the organisation and built a bond that created buy-in to the organisation’s mission.

There are both informal and formal methods of training and development a non-profit organisation can offer volunteers. Enabling them to benefit from skills development can significantly help to build their engagement and commitment to the organisation.

Retain: keep those who make a difference

As most non-profit organizations can attest, not every individual who initially volunteers goes on to stay in the organization indefinitely. People move cities, have changing priorities through time and in some cases, may not derive the same value from their contribution as in the past. Finding ways to retain people who are critical and ensuring adequate succession planning for when they do leave is important.

A tool for retaining volunteers that 180 Degrees Consulting has recommended to clients in the past is to create hierarchies for volunteers. Providing volunteers with a position of authority and added responsibility can be an impactful motivator to help volunteers to grow with the organization and take on more responsibility as the organization’s needs expand. Marylene Gagne and Valérie Millette have found that such expansionary involvement increased performance, satisfaction and motivation of volunteers (Millette and Gagne, 2008).  It must be noted, however, that this will not always be appropriate for an organisation. This is particularly so where the organization requires a high degree of flexibility and a more informal culture. Indeed at Dufferin Grove Park, its informality with the volunteers was seen as part of its success in volunteer engagement (Barnes and Sharpe, 2009).

Another important element of retention is ensuring that volunteers are able to meet their leisure objectives through their involvement. Volunteers drove some of the most successful activities undertaken at Dufferin Grove Park, such as the outdoor theatre and farmers market, because of their interest in theatre and gardening. Many individuals decide to become and remain volunteers because of the “ability to integrate their involvement with their personal lives, interests, and vocations” (Barnes and Sharpe, 2009).

Whether recruiting, developing or looking for ways to keep volunteers involved in an organization, being mindful of the four motivating factors established by Parker can greatly enhance success. By promoting initiatives that facilitate and emphasise volunteers’ satisfaction across multiple motivation factors, non-profit organisations can ensure greater volunteer engagement and commitment.

i  Stanley R. Parker, ‘Volunteering – Altruism, Markets, Causes and Leisure’ (1997) 39(3) World Leisure & Recreation 4.

ii  Martha L. Barnes and Erin K. Sharpe, ‘Looking Beyond Traditional Volunteer Management: A Case Study of an Alternative Approach to Volunteer Engagement in Parks and Recreation’ (2009) 20 Voluntas 169.

iii  Valérie Millette and Marylene Gagné, ‘Designing Volunteers’ Tasks to Maximize Motivation, Satisfaction and Performance: The Impact of Job Characteristics on Vlounteer Engagement’ (2008) 32 Motiv Emot 11.

iv  Martha L. Barnes and Erin K. Sharpe, ‘Looking Beyond Traditional Volunteer Management: A Case Study of an Alternative Approach to Volunteer Engagement in Parks and Recreation’ (2009) 20 Voluntas 169.

v  Ibid.