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Volunteer Engagement: Considerations for Organizational Success

Health and social service agencies, and the nonprofit sector generally, rely on volunteers to advance their missions and to ensure their continuing viability. As nonprofit organizations (NPOs) must compete for resources necessary to sustain their operations, the availability of an engaged workforce (comprised, at least in part, of members who are willing to consign their labor without any expectation of financial remuneration in return) is often essential to their survival. An extensive body of research has explored this issue in the context of Resource Dependence Theory (RDT) – one that posits organizations depend on multidimensional resources for their survival (Ilyas, Butt, Ashfaq, & Acquadro Maran, 2020). RDT suggests NPOs, most of which rely on governmental and private philanthropic support that is seldom sufficient to meet the ever-increasing need, must explore innovative means of fulfilling their missions, especially during periods of resource scarcity. For many NPOs, the cultivation of a qualified volunteer workforce that supplements or extends the impact of paid personnel is therefore of paramount importance. Behavioral health organizations, in particular, must reconsider the role of volunteers in responding to a precipitous increase in demand associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and its adverse impact on public health. The rising incidence of depression, anxiety, suicidality, and substance misuse and abuse necessitates a marshaling of all available resources. Volunteers may constitute an essential component of the solution to this unprecedented health crisis.

Ashley Brody, MPA, CPRP

Ashley Brody, MPA, CPRP

NPOs often compete for volunteers, much as they compete for governmental grants and contracts and private philanthropic donations. To prevail in this competition, NPOs and their Human Resources departments or designated volunteer managers must identify and capitalize on prospective volunteers’ motivations and ensure their work experiences fulfill or are aligned with these motives. One study offers a model that may inform organizational approaches to volunteer engagement. It examined and classified volunteers’ motives as “endogenous” or “exogenous” in nature (Janus & Misiorek, 2019). It regarded these classifications as points along a continuum and indicated volunteers frequently possess complex or nuanced motives that may be differentially classified. These authors suggested this continuum may also be conceptualized as one that includes “altruistic” motives at one pole and “social” motives at the other. In this model, altruistic motives are driven by exogenous or extrinsic factors (e.g., a desire to “help others”), whereas social motives are driven largely by endogenous or intrinsic factors (e.g., a desire to “meet new people or to gain new experiences”). NPOs may utilize this and similar models and their corresponding evidence bases in formulating approaches to volunteer engagement.

Another study explored volunteer managers’ strategies to cultivate and sustain volunteer interest and revealed several overlapping strategies that capitalized on their motivations in accordance with their placement on the foregoing continuum (Ilyas, Butt, Ashfaq, & Acquadro Maran, 2020). For example, some managers surveyed in this study cited the importance of providing opportunities for personal and professional development as a leading strategy to elicit and to engage volunteers, an approach that would be especially suited to volunteers driven by endogenous or intrinsic motives (i.e., those seeking personal gain). Other managers recognized the importance of fulfilling volunteers’ “ulterior motives” for donating their services. These volunteers were likely impelled by intrinsic or endogenous motives but identified other (i.e., “extrinsic”) factors when queried during the recruitment process. Some managers recognized volunteers’ motives were inherently nuanced and subject to certain demographic factors, and they cited the influence of age on volunteers’ motivations. As such, these managers calibrated their approaches in accordance with prospective volunteers’ age and stage of life. Managers also cited the importance of fellowship, opportunities for social interaction, and the provision of emotional support as leading strategies to sustain engagement. Presumably, these strategies would benefit volunteers irrespective of their motivations, as success in a workplace customarily requires supportive and productive interpersonal relationships among its personnel, both paid and unpaid alike.

Search for Change Quarter Page Spring 2021

Dynamics unique to the current economy offer leaders and managers of behavioral health organizations rare opportunities to bolster their volunteer workforces, provided they correctly identify and capitalize on volunteers’ disparate motivations. The concurrence of a “Great Resignation,” during which countless employees have relinquished paid positions, and a marked increase in demand for behavioral health services may produce a corresponding increase in the volume of volunteer applicants, especially among formerly disenfranchised employees driven by a search for meaning above financial remuneration. Studies that affirm the potential emotional and psychological benefits of volunteerism validate prospective volunteers’ aspirations, and nonprofit managers may leverage these findings in their recruitment and retention efforts. For instance, one investigation into physical and mental health benefits associated with volunteerism revealed measurable increases in mental health, physical health, life satisfaction, and social well-being following periods of volunteer work activity (Yeung, Zhang, & Kim, 2018). In addition, these increases were more pronounced among individuals engaged in “other-oriented” volunteer activities. That is, individuals who engaged in activities intended primarily for the benefit of others (i.e., those whose motives were altruistic) derived greater health benefits and satisfaction than volunteers who engaged in “self-oriented” activities, the motives for which were presumed to be inherently social or intrinsic.

As behavioral health organizations experience enduring obstacles to the fulfillment of their missions, their leaders and managers may look to a newly minted pool of prospective volunteers to extend the depth and breadth of their service offerings or, at the very least, to compensate for shortages in paid personnel. Success in this endeavor, however, requires meticulous attention to volunteers’ motivations and the cultivation of corresponding strategies to sustain their engagement. The development of effective “volunteer management” skills may prove indispensable to many organizations’ success and continued survival.

Ashley Brody is the Chief Executive Officer at Search for Change, Inc. Ashley may be reached at (914) 428-5600 (x9228) or

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