Anyone who is interested in recruiting volunteers or working effectively with volunteers has often asked the question, what motivates a person to volunteer. We could certainly dance around in circles to answer this question, however, the basic premise behind volunteer motivation lies with the concept discovered by Abraham Maslow over 50 years ago with his hierarchy of needs theory. Volunteers have needs and they will get their needs met through the organization that best satisfies those needs. As Maslow pointed out, motivation is driven by the existence of unstaisfied needs and with this thought in mind it is worthwhile for managers of volunteer programs and community leaders to understand what needs are more important to their volunteers/members on an individual basis.
Let us look at social needs as an example. Volunteers who are motivated to volunteer based on social needs are looking for experiences that will allow them to interact with others. Their motivation is based on the need to develop friendships, the need to belong to some group or organization and the need to give and receive love. Obviously, we wouldn't place a volunteer with these kinds of needs in a volunteer activity where they would be alone.
According to Maslow, once a person feels a sense of belonging, the need to feel important arises. Esteem needs may be classified as internal or external. Internal esteem needs are those related to self-esteem and achievement. Volunteers with these kind of motivational factors need to be affiliated with assignments that are very task orientated, whereby they are achieving something that is beneficial to others. External esteem needs are those such as social status and recognition and these motivational factors are usually met through leadership roles.
There are some very important implications for managers or leaders of volunteers if we follow Maslow's principles. There are opportunities to motivate volunteers through various management styles, job designs (as in volunteer activity descriptions) and including volunteers in organizational social activities. When it comes to esteem needs for example we need to recognize achievement to make volunteers feel appreciated and valued. Offer job titles that convey the importance of the position that volunteers hold. It is also important to provide volunteers with challenges so that they can reach their full potential as individuals. In Maslow terms, the need to have challenging assignments is referred to as self-actualization. Volunteer with self-actulaization needs are looking for new opportunities to enhance their personal growth.
Yes, we need to understand the motivation behind our volunteers. Understanding what motivates an individual volunteer will increase the likelihood of extending the retention of that volunteer. And it must be remembered that volunteers need change as they experience success in their volunteer activities.