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How to get volunteers to do what you want them to – and like it


When I was a senior at the University of Illinois, I lived with some friends in an old house set in a grove of oak trees. I loved to take my homework outside and sit under a tree to study and daydream. One day, I went out and found stakes marking off big sections of the grove.

Racing inside, I begged my housemates to help me find out what was happening. We made phone calls and discovered that the university planned to cut down all the trees to build a parking lot. We made posters, gave save-the-trees presentations in the dorms nearby, and delivered impassioned pleas to administrators. Many noisy protests and negotiations later, the university backed down and let the trees stand. Somewhat to our own surprise, we had prevailed – and I had seen the power of motivated volunteers.

It was my first experience with what I’ve come to call “stealth motivation.” Before that happened, I hadn’t realized that I possessed any ability to motivate people. But I have learned that when you personally ask people to take on a task that is important to a cause they care about, great things can happen. The key is finding out what will give volunteers satisfaction without drawing attention to the fact that you are trying to motivate them. 

Illustration by Dave Cutler

In many ways, motivating volunteers is much harder than motivating employees. You don’t pay volunteers, and you can’t fire them. But there are still effective approaches: Remember that every potential volunteer is looking for something, whether it’s personal satisfaction, the chance to contribute to a good cause, or simply a fun thing to do. 

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of books including Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, has spent a good portion of his career trying to discern under what circumstances people will do what you ask. Why do some people enthusiastically volunteer for every event your club puts on, while others rarely or never do? 

Ariely believes that part of the answer depends on recognition. “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes,” the Duke University Fuqua School of Business professor said in a 2013 TED Talk. “The good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult.” 

In an experiment he reported in Payoff, Ariely persuaded Intel to reward three sets of workers for productivity with either a monetary bonus, a pizza voucher, or a texted compliment. All of the rewards resulted in increased productivity the next day, but the compliment was the most powerful and had the longest-lasting effect. 

Ariely was focused on employees, but he believes the power of compliments holds true for volunteers as well. When a reluctant volunteer receives public appreciation for his work, even just a text saying “good job,” it can increase the chances that he will step up for the next project. 

But recognition alone isn’t enough. Being a committed volunteer is hard work, and people know it. So to recruit volunteers, you must overcome what behavioral scientist David Halpern calls “friction”: Will it be worth my time? Will I look like a fool? Will it be too hard? “Humans have a deep-rooted tendency to take the line of least resistance,” notes Halpern, the author of Inside the Nudge Unit: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference. 

Halpern directs a British government agency that tries to “nudge” people into changing their behavior by making it easier to perform the desired behavior. The Nudge Unit got a million more people to participate in a pension plan, for instance, simply by making it an “opt out” plan. 

Similar techniques can work for volunteer projects. Always think about how to make it easier to participate, such as by breaking up large assignments into smaller tasks. It also helps, says Halpern, if you make the volunteer assignment as attractive as possible, for example by pairing it with an opportunity to promote the volunteer’s business or to involve family in something fun. As an example, he points to advertisements for military service. Today’s ads, rather than telling you that Uncle Sam wants you, “dwell much more on adventure and excitement,” he says. 

If an assignment isn’t too onerous, you’ll often find that people will put in more effort than they intended. But the opposite is also true, Halpern says: “A human impulse to do something grinds to a halt when it becomes a hassle.”

So to maintain a contingent of motivated volunteers, you have to plan ahead. When you throw something together at the last minute, you’ll find yourself relying on the same people who always carry the load. Or you’ll quickly overtax new members, who are sometimes the most eager to get involved. 

When I was incoming president of my club, I decided to ask people exactly what they wanted to get out of their membership. I spent a few months interviewing every member of the club, either over lunch or at their office. I heard some complaints but also a lot of good ideas. In the end, the effort made us a much stronger club. Among other things, we added a successful fundraiser and attracted nine new members.

According to Ann Rhoades, a co-founder of JetBlue and author of Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture That Outperforms the Competition, one of the most powerful things you can do to create an effective corporate culture is to listen to your best employees and create a shared culture based on their values. I helped Rhoades write that book, and what I learned from her led me to approach my club presidency the way I did. 

Volunteer groups are not so different from companies, Rhoades told me recently. “The values of your most motivated volunteers can get other people excited to volunteer,” she says. “Do some brainstorming to make these values explicit – whether it’s making kids’ lives better, helping the poor, or having fun – and then talk about them all the time. It’s one of the most important things you can do to make volunteering more rewarding.” 

By listening to our club members, I discovered that many of them were primarily motivated by one thing: doing good for the children in our community. Two projects – giving books to kids and managing a Special Olympics event – grew out of that process. 

Encouraging members to identify problems they want to solve and letting them come up with ways to address them are the keys to keeping people motivated. My club is in the midst of another listening tour that I hope results in more good projects that will, in turn, ease members into becoming more engaged. In my experience, if you praise regularly, nudge often, and make sure your group’s values are clear, people who volunteer for you will be grateful to you – even if they’re not sure why. 

Nancy Shepherdson is the co-author of five books and a past president of the Rotary Club of Lake Zurich, Illinois.

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