How to Motivate Volunteers Season After Season

Researchers have identified six key motives for volunteering:

· Values – expressing philanthropic ideals; Example: a person who loves gardening and is concerned about city beautification may volunteer for a tree-planting organization.

· Understanding – learning or practicing skills; Example: a person who wishes to learn more about the hearing impaired community may volunteer her time tutoring children with cochlear implants. The volunteer will gain an understanding of the challenges and triumphs children in this community experience

· Social – engaging in volunteer work to be with friends; Example: volunteering to hand out water together at a charity run. The primary goal is to be with friends while working for the cause.

· Career – furthering professional opportunities; Example: an event planner who volunteers his services to plan a charity auction will meet key business contacts and vendors in the process of planning the event.

· Protection – counterbalancing adverse feelings or sadness; Example: A mother who lost a child to a drunk driving accident may volunteer her time to Mothers’ Against Drunk Driving.

· Enhancement – augmenting self-image or person growth; Example: A person who feels better about themselves as a result of their volunteer work.

Research varies on which motivations are the best practices, however many people cite a combination of several factors in their reasons to volunteer.

Volunteering and Serious Leisure

A variety of volunteer opportunities are available to people in their leisure time. Often, one chooses a particular volunteer activity based on their personal interests or the interests of a family member. What may start as a couple hours of assisting with the check-in table at a child’s hockey tournament can blossom into organizing registration for 30 hockey teams the following year. Volunteer activities can become so involved that they consume a person’s leisure time. This type of experience is known as serious leisure, meaning the organized, long-lasting pursuit of an activity or skill set in which the participant is fully engrossed. Serious volunteers may describe their volunteer activities as work. For instance, the person who volunteers in a community gift shop or feeds animals at the shelter may call this activity her job.

In serious leisure pursuits, volunteers share similar values that form a collective identity among the group. Not only do the volunteers have an enthusiasm for the activity, but also they are bonded together by their interests and feel a sense of belonging within the social circle. Retirees who meet every Tuesday to play bridge at the community center may volunteer to teach the youth group how to play the game in their spare time. They share excitement for the activity, keep track of their scores and master-rating points, and are motivated to share their knowledge with others.

Volunteer Recruitment

Most managers look internally for volunteers including parents and participants, as these people have knowledge of the sport and are trusted, based on personal relationships. For instance, the older soccer teams can assist the younger soccer teams through a junior coaching program. Not only will teenagers gain experience on coaching and mentoring skills, they will provide free, much-needed labor to the program. A junior coaching program is a win-win for managers and students. However, managers must consider the coaching requirements, noting that national organizations may require coaching staff to carry accreditations, insurance, and clear a background screening. Further, parents of the younger children may be concerned if a professional coach does not teach their child. For this reason, junior coaches should work alongside professional staff, not as replacements.

Another option for recruiting volunteers is looking outside the traditional framework of an organization by bridging out to the surrounding community. For instance, a baseball team looking to build a new member website may ask a collegiate computer department or a local web design company to create the website. The volunteers could see this as an opportunity to build skills and help the community, and the baseball commissioner sees bridging out as a way to complete a needed task. One of the issues that could arise from bridging out is lack of trust. Volunteers who do not have a personal relationship or investment in the activity may be seen as outsiders who have questionable motives.

Creating a student internship program is also a great way to recruit new volunteers. Not only can a manager provide vocational training to students, s/he can also receive much-needed assistance that does not impact the budget. Student volunteers can help with filing, answering phones, organizing the office, and staffing check-in tables. Learning how to use office equipment such as the copier, fax machine, scanner, and laminator are generally not covered in class, but are essential in the day-to-day office setting. Internships are a great way for students to learn how to use this equipment, as well as build programming and customer service experience.

A word of caution: recreation leaders must be cautious of volunteers’ behavior, especially those working with children. A screening process that includes a background check and fingerprinting should be in place before the volunteers interact with kids.

Volunteer Retention & Motivation

Volunteers must feel welcome when joining a new group. To facilitate the process of getting acquainted, managers can organize an informal meet-and-greet coffee, team building meeting, or host a family potluck picnic. Volunteer groups can function like a clique, where new members are seen as outsiders trying to take over the leadership of the organization. Returning members of the group can feel as though they are a small number of people bearing the brunt of the work. Many times, they do not acknowledge their unwelcoming behavior. When this happens, new volunteers feel unaccepted and do not return to help in the future. Part of the goal of the manager is to bridge the gap between returning and new volunteers.

Staff must provide accurate information about the organizational structure and the volunteers’ duties. The outline of duties and expectations will give volunteers a clear picture of their role in the organization. This will help people choose wisely whether they have the time to volunteer and if the role will satisfy their needs. When a mutually beneficial situation is reached, the volunteer will feel empowered in their volunteer effort and keep returning for more hours.

In working with volunteers, managers must keep the channel of communication open. Interactions can include hearing the volunteers’ concerns and questions, and providing positive feedback on a regular basis. Verbal expressions of appreciation for a job well done can accompany formal rewards and recognitions. Rewards can be in the form of plaques, certificates, a volunteer recognition breakfast, free program registration, a thank you gift, or special recognition in print. Extrinsic rewards can influence volunteer attendance and effort.

Managers should strive to keep the experience enjoyable for volunteers. Enjoyment of the activity is a great motivator to return and even to take on additional responsibilities. When hiring new staff, a manager can focus on choosing people who are committed to fostering volunteerism. If possible, new staff should have experience working effectively with volunteers and have a positive attitude toward having volunteers around the center.

In contrast, a manager who has little experience or may not know how to communicate effectively with their volunteers may be faced with a low retention rate. A volunteer who is left alone for too long on a task without feedback will feel unappreciated, and may stop showing up altogether. Research demonstrates that insufficient fulfillment drives volunteers to quit. If one does not feel they are getting a level satisfaction from the experience, equal to the time they are investing, often they leave the group. The opportunity alone for volunteers to voice their dissatisfaction is linked to positive outcomes. Once volunteers feel pride and respect from their experience, they will continue to volunteer. Managers can retain and motivate volunteers season after season by asking for feedback through end-of-year surveys and informal debriefing sessions.

After volunteers have been in their positions for several seasons, they can be resistant to new training or trying things a different way. If budget allows, sending a volunteer to a professional conference can inspire them and reinforce their value to the organization. Volunteers will be able to network, and will return rejuvenated and full of new ideas. In the case of figure skating, a volunteer could attend a US Figure Skating seminar on the judging system and then lead a seminar at their home rink for coaches and parents.


Volunteers are needed to help youth sports activities run smoothly. Managers need strategies to work positively with and motivate volunteers to increase retention. An examination of an event where paid staff and volunteers work in tandem is a useful conclusion to this article.

In this scenario, the recreation leader would like to host a car wash to raise funds for a youth sports team’s new uniforms. The manager’s role is to empower the volunteers to organize and execute the car wash with her guidance. Encouraging parents and students to form a committee of volunteers is a method of delegating event responsibilities. Hosting a committee meeting with simple snacks for the attendees will help them feel valued in the process of planning for the car wash. Dividing the duties among the volunteer team ensures all participants have a job and creates a sense of teamwork. Duties can include: calling the venue, purchasing supplies, making posters, sending e-mail marketing blasts, scheduling volunteers, providing snacks. Each volunteer has a specific task; once that task is completed, volunteers can enjoy the event as they see fit. Managers should actively involve the kids in the fundraiser. The athletes have a lot of energy and are eager to pitch in to raise funds for their uniforms.

Throughout the event, staff must communicate with volunteers through a friendly chats or words of encouragement, to let them know they are valued. After the event, thank you notes with a short survey for gathering feedback can help keep volunteers motivated and feeling positive about their contribution. The parents and players want to know they are appreciated and make a difference to the organization. Fostering the feelings of inclusiveness and usefulness will help retain volunteers for the next season.

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