Active volunteer: what motives drive them


What motivates people to give their time, effort, and money completely free of charge? People help other people, animals, save the planet, go to demonstrations, and do not receive anything material in exchange for this. Let's see what scientists have to say about this. In 1976, in a study of 374 female volunteers, Howarth wrote that volunteering is primarily a form of anxiety reduction. In 1978, Gidron, analyzing the motivational-hygienic theory of Herzberg, where there were two main directions - intrinsic motivation and external hygienic factors, divided the motivation of volunteers into three main types:

  • personal, as a type of self-realization

  • social, as a method of establishing and developing social ties

  • indirect economic, as a method of gaining professional experience

By the beginning of the 90s, a lot of research was carried out and two different models appeared to determine the motivation of volunteers.

The first is a one-dimensional model. It was built by Cnaan and Goldberg-Glenn based on a study of 258 volunteers. They identified 28 major motivations that were measured on a five-point Likert scale. The main conclusion is quite banal - any volunteer is driven by more than one motivation. And although this model has not received widespread acceptance, it gave impetus to the creation of the second direction - multifactor models. In 1992, Clary, Snyder, and Ridge created the Volunteer Functions Inventory, which outlines 6 main motivations for a volunteer:

  • Values. That is to act on deeply rooted beliefs about the importance of helping others.

  • Understanding as a desire to learn something new.

  • Career as a way to gain new professional experience.

  • Social motivation as compliance with the social request of people significant for a person

  • Self-esteem.

  • Protection. Protection from the harsh surrounding reality by escaping into volunteering.

Finally, in 2002, McEwin and Jacobsen-D'Arcy (2002) created a model Volunteer Motivation Inventory. They divided motivation into 8 factors:

  • Values. Volunteering is a part of the human value system.

  • Career. That is, a person voluntarily develops experience and skills in this area, which ultimately can help them find a job.

  • Personal growth.

  • Recognition. A person loves to be recognized for their skills and contributions.

  • Hedonism. The person enjoys the heady feeling of being useful. Although this feeling is fleeting, it can push you towards personal growth.

  • Sociality. People enjoy the social atmosphere of volunteering.

  • Reactivity. Here people become volunteers to distract themselves from their own problems.

  • Reciprocity. A person likes to volunteer and believes that what you give to the world is what you receive.

However, people's motivations change over time, as the life and circumstances of a person in general change. For example, in the organizations with which we worked, the average duration of a volunteer's activity was about 1.5 years. We realized that in many organizations, especially young ones, few people think about how to segment volunteers according to motivational factors and increase satisfaction with these factors. At Qela, we have created a fairly simple yet effective gamification-based solution. According to DIS 2016 research, gamification improves many parameters even when using the simplest gamification option in the form of PBL (points, badges, leaderboards):



Table 1. scores on a seven-point Likert scale But we went a little further and decided to use a much more advanced gamification framework called Octalysis, created by Yu-Kai Chou. According to this framework, all human motivations are divided into 8 main incentives: ​

  1. Epic Meaning & Calling - Mission, self-worth. This is very much in line with the motivations of "value" and "reciprocity" of volunteers according to the VMI model (Volunteer Motivation Inventory). Naturally, we created Qela for organizations whose mission is to make sustainable changes in society (in a democratic way). Therefore, in our application, we propose to introduce new supporters to the mission and values of the organization through gamified onboarding.

  2. Development & Accomplishment - The main incentive here is the desire to develop oneself, overcoming difficulties. It is this incentive that underlies the simplest PBL model. This fundamental incentive lies in our quest system and the tree of various talents that a volunteer can develop by taking part in a particular quest.

  3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback — Unleashing creative potential, self-improvement. The game is interesting when it allows you to use non-standard practices to solve a mission or gives the player freedom of action. This makes life easier for developers: the game becomes boring more slowly, which means that it does not require frequent updates. According to this principle, Lego constructors are successful, where you can assemble a house, a car, or a robot from one set. Here we continue to develop the possibilities of quests and talents, while using the voting system, participants regularly provide feedback. This strengthens a sense of unity and understanding between supporters and leaders of the organization.

  4. Ownership & Possession - Every person, and a volunteer is no exception, strives to accumulate and protect those benefits for which they had to try hard. In behavioral economics, a similar cognitive distortion is called sunk cost fallacy. In short, the more effort, time, or money a person has spent on something, the more they appreciate it and the more difficult it is to refuse. The accumulated influence points, awards, knowledge, and experience in gamified social activity keep the supporter from saying goodbye to the organization.

  5. Social Influence & Relatedness - Human is still a herd animal. And everything related to social pressure or approval, friendship, influence is extremely important for us. At VMI, this is one of the main motivations for volunteers.

  6. Scarcity & Impatience - The more unique and rare the resources are, the more we want to get them. This incentive has little in common with the motivation of volunteers, but it works great in e-commerce, so we are implementing it with great care.

  7. Unpredictability & Curiosity - One of the reasons for technological progress is ordinary human curiosity, which works on the basis of one of the hormones that influence human behavior - dopamine. The expectation of something new and pleasant is much more enjoyable than the new itself. Therefore, such an incentive has a good effect on volunteers, for whom the "Understanding" motivation according to the VFI model is important. The entire system of the Qela application allows, through a variety of tasks, to entertain and educate the supporter, while maintaining an element of novelty.

  8. Loss & Avoidance - At first glance, it seems that this directly intersects with the motivation for "reactivity" according to VMI, but this is a bit different. This is about the fear of people missing something important that can pass without their participation. A prime example is FOMO (fearing of missing out) syndrome. This is what makes people watch the news on TV and go to Facebook every couple of hours. "What if I'd missed something?" The entire system proposed by Qela maintains this motivation at a stable level because both quests and voting have a time limit and are constantly updated.

​ It should be noted that not all gamification principles are equally effective for working with volunteers' motivations, but their skillful use increases the duration of a volunteer's activity in an organization, minimizes their outflow over time, increases engagement, as well as the number of donations it collects. The organization does not lose mutual touch with its supporters, and therefore the chances for sustainable change.