Want better volunteers? Understand their motivation

We just had a fantastic visit today by Prof. Mark Snyder, Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Prof. Snyder is a top researcher who also has a strong interest in improving people’s lives in the “real world.” A dominating interest of his is, to put it simply, why people do good things. Why do people help others when they don’t have to, and when it even may not seem in their selfish interests to do so?

This led him to a two-decades long program of research on volunteering. Research shows that most people endorse volunteering and see it as a good thing. However, only a minority of those who hold this positive value actually volunteer. Prof. Snyder is exploring what can be done to move general motivation into actually volunteering. As part of his research, he has developed the Volunteer Functions Inventory, which identifies main motivations for volunteering.

You can find out more about his research and intervention programs here. Two points of particular interest for everyone trying to recruit volunteers:

First, volunteers stay on the job longer if their original motivation for volunteering is met. So someone who comes to an organization primarily interested in making friends could best be put in a more social situation, whereas someone coming to explore a new career could get a different set of tasks. The take-home for groups that use volunteers is this: It’s critically important to explore why volunteers want to work for the organization, and to try to match tasks to that motivation.

Second, many of the longest-term volunteers are motivated at least in part by what we might call “selfish” reasons. They want peronal growth, career experience, social contact, or other personally rewarding things. This doesn’t mean they aren’t altruistic — they are that, too. Prof. Snyder coined the term “selfish altruism” to describe this mix of motives. The implication is that it’s okay to want to benefit from the volunteer work, and organizations should feel free to market their volunteer positions that way (focusing on the potential benefits to volunteers).

So Prof. Synder’s work definitely falls in the “research you can use” category. Many of his publications are listed on his web site. He has also created a center that studies positive action, including volunteerism and civic engagement, and it’s well worth a look.


  1. […] benefit to communities is huge and well-documented. But after our visit from volunteering researcher Mark Snyder, we wondered: What about the benefits to individuals? We’d expect MGV participation to be good […]

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