Academic journal article SAM Advanced Management Journal

Volunteer Motivation and Reward Preference: An Empirical Study of Volunteerism in a Large, Not-for-Profit Organization

Academic journal article SAM Advanced Management Journal

Volunteer Motivation and Reward Preference: An Empirical Study of Volunteerism in a Large, Not-for-Profit Organization

Article excerpt

Among developed countries, the U.S. stands out for the high level of volunteerism. In 2008, as this article points out, more than one-fourth of the entire population volunteered for religious, educational, youth or community service organizations or other types. Volunteers are usually crucial for nonprofits, so knowing how to attract and retain them is also crucial. Results from an e-mail survey of 328 volunteers for Meals on Wheels--both otherwise employed and retired-- were analyzed quantitatively to assess the motivating power of various types of rewards, tangible and intangible. Results should be enlightening and useful for nonprofits, especially this one: "... the most meaningful motivators are neither expensive nor difficult to procure."


Volunteering is big business in the United States. In 2008 more than one-fourth of the population donated an average of 52 hours apiece to a not-for-profit organization. The largest beneficiaries of this generosity were religious, educational, youth service, and community service organizations (Volunteering in the United States, 2008). Volunteers provide numerous benefits to society (Snyder, Omoto, and Lindsay, 2004), not only filling gaps in social safety nets and providing services that communities cannot or will not, but also creating social links among the often diverse members of a community (Stukas, Worth, Clary, and Snyder, 2009). While not-for-profits' reliance on volunteer labor is not new, the pressure to recruit and maintain volunteers has continued to intensify. The expanding need for volunteers, coupled with the low exit barriers associated with volunteering, makes the study of volunteer motivation both timely and important.

Because most volunteers also hold paying jobs, their volunteer work may fulfill only those motivational needs that are not being met at work. Given the numerous differences between volunteers and paid workers, simply exporting motivation research from the for-profit environment to the not-for-profit world appears ill-advised. Because of these and other differences between paid workers and volunteers, researchers have conducted numerous studies specifically examining unpaid worker motivation.

For example, not-for-profit managers often offer symbolic rewards to increase volunteer commitment and favorably influence volunteer performance; common examples include thank you letters, prizes, publicity, appreciation dinners, and attendance at a conference, though the complete list is surprisingly extensive and diverse. In one large study, Cnaan and Cascio (1999) evaluated 17 different symbolic rewards for their impact on volunteer satisfaction, organizational commitment, and tenure; their results suggest that individual responses to rewards are quite varied.

Functional theory is one widely studied psychological model that assesses individual motivation. Functional theory proposes that individuals hold certain attitudes or engage in particular behaviors because those attitudes and actions meet specific psychological needs, and that different individuals can hold the same attitudes or participate in the same behaviors for very different reasons (Clary and Snyder, 1991; Katz, 1960; Smith, Bruner, and White, 1956). Previous applications of functional theory in volunteer studies include human resource management studies, in which functional theory was used to evaluate attitudes and their consequences within organizations (Dulebohn, Murray, and Sun, 2000; Lievens and Highhouse, 2003). The results of this study offered insights into how to recruit, retain, and satisfy individuals by recognizing their unique motivations.

Although applications of functional theory to volunteers appeared as early as 1991, standardized measures of volunteer motivation were generally absent from the literature (Clary et al., 1991). Development of the volunteer functions inventory (VFI) (Clary, et al., 1998) followed, in an attempt to produce a measurement tool with relevance for a wide range of volunteers. …

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