Guest Post by Nick Cooney, Author of Change Of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change
For small non-profits (like the one I run), having volunteers can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand we depend on volunteer help to achieve our goals; money is tight, and hiring additional staff (or any staff) is often out of the question. Yet while volunteers play such an important role in the success of most small non-profits, as a group they are notoriously fickle, expressing great interest one day and disappearing the next. While this general situation is unlikely to change, non-profit directors can turn to the scientific record for insights into how to recruit new volunteers and keep their current ones motivated. Decades of psychology research have yielded (among many other things) the following pointers for revving up volunteers:
Make Them Work
We’re inclined to want to make things as easy as possible for volunteers, but having them work hard can be a good thing. The more that people work for something, the more they will come to like it, and the more dedicated they will be to it in the future (Brehm, Kassin and Fein 217). A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that women who endured pain or embarrassment to get into a sex discussion group valued it much more highly than those who were admitted without having to endure such tribulations (Gerard and Mathewson 1966). A study of fifty-four tribal cultures found those with the harshest initiation ceremonies also had the greatest group solidarity (Young 1965). This phenomenon is the reason that hazing continues to be so popular among fraternities, sororities, and similar organizations. There’s no need to grab a paddle or force anyone to walk on hot coals, but don’t worry about making your volunteers sweat a little. (Just be sure to thank them heartily afterwards.)
Show Them The Enemy
Confrontation with an opposition force is a strong builder of group solidarity (Andreasen 2005). Find creative ways to bring your volunteers face to face with the “enemy” your non-profit is fighting. Whether it is poverty, cancer, animal abuse, intolerance, or any other social ill, get your volunteers as close as possible to the enemy and the pain that it causes. Even group viewings of videos (of animal cruelty, cancer patients, labor abuses, etc.) might make your volunteers feel more unified with one another and with your non-profit in a desire to create change.
Altruism Isn’t Everything
Contrary to what we imagine, volunteers aren’t guided by pure altruism. They also have self–oriented motives like the desire to gain skills and the desire to find a social group. This is not a problem in and of itself, and we should realize the importance that personal benefits play in volunteers’ willingness to stay involved. A study of people who volunteered with AIDS organizations found that those who had initially expressed self-oriented motives for volunteering—like gaining personal skills and an understanding of the issue—remained active longer than those who had initially expressed altruistic motives such as concern for the community (Omoto and Snyder 1995). Because of how our brains are hardwired, self-interest can sometimes keep volunteers going when simple altruism would not. Aside from gaining skills and experience, personal motivations for volunteers to keep going can include the feeling of competence that comes with success, the invigorating personal challenge to do more, and the sense of living a meaningful life.
For more on the role that psychology can play in helping non-profits succeed, visit http://www.ChangeOfHeartBook.com.