Ideas in Action

May 13, 2016 | Posted by: Steve Russell

What motivates us to volunteer?

I’m a sports lover and a family man; and these combined interests have led me to volunteer as my children’s football and basketball coach for many years. I’ve also contributed in many other ways to keep the clubs going from serving on the local football club committee, helping-out in the canteen and BBQs, and being the Support Crew for Oxfam’s 100km Trailwalk.


But I’m no role model or altruist.  When schools want to conduct a working bee, I can’t write a cheque fast enough to avoid any obligation to attend. If a fire threatens our community, I’m in the car and out of there with my family before our dog has even smelled trouble.  Although I’ve done first aid training, if someone gets injured I’ll always wait to see if somebody else more qualified can help.

I always carry a little bit of guilt that I don’t do more to help the world. I travel regularly to Third World countries and consider myself a compassionate person, yet I often think I don’t do anything truly meaningful to help those less fortunate. Instead, I satisfy my guilt by sending a cheque to World Vision, or a donation to the familiar call of some charity then recline back in my comfortable rocker.

So I pick and choose to a large extent which things I’ll volunteer for. I ‘take my hat off’ to our community volunteers who deliver critical public value services, such as firefighters, State Emergency Service, Red Cross, Salvation Army, disability support etc.  But I guess every individual has a limited capacity (or inclination) and varying levels of motivation, to help others. Which got me thinking: “What common factors motivate people to volunteer, to deliver public value?”

In my opinion there are eight common factors:

1. Altruism

Altruism is defined as the selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. I’d add, it’s demonstrated through targeted actions, as opposed to philosophical idealism. Believe it or not, these people exist. Sometimes they are people who have been affected either directly or indirectly by adverse circumstances, and wish to help alleviate other people suffering a similar fate.  But they can also be genuinely generous and nice people who want to do their bit for the world – the two types are not mutually exclusive.

2. You’re good at it

I think you need to be good at what you do (or at least think you are), no matter what pursuit it is, to feel good about doing it, worthy of the role and commit your personal time to it. Some volunteer roles assume significant responsibility and risk backlash from ‘customers’ or ‘members’ if performance is perceived to be poor; being good at the role is important to avoiding criticism, being appreciated and achieving job satisfaction.

3. You love it

If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t usually do it on a volunteer basis. Volunteers must love it and be passionate about it, to devote their spare time, personal energy and emotions to the activity.

4. Self-fulfilment

Your role as a volunteer can give you a sense of pride and identity; it can boost your self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence and sense of accomplishment. It can make you feel valuable to others and valued by others.

5. Social connectivity

Many people enjoy the social element of meeting, working and bonding with other like-minded volunteers, feeling part of a community and a sense of personal satisfaction in contributing to a common cause. Many volunteers also enjoy connecting with recipients of their services.  Volunteering creates a vehicle for meeting and socialising with new people, where each volunteer has a sense of pride and self-worth partially borne directly out of their volunteer role.

6. Sense of duty – ‘doing your bit’

Community spirit applies everywhere among all ages, in all demographics, but I’d suggest is more prevalent in rural and regional areas of Australia, where a sense of duty and community responsibility is perhaps more ingrained. If your child is participating in sports and you observe other people generously giving their time to assist, or firefighters are protecting your home, or you’re benefitting from another volunteers’ service, then people often feel they should ‘pitch in’ and help; especially if too much is being left to too few.

7. Direct influence

Maybe you don’t like the way things are done currently, or you lack faith in an incumbent volunteer or you think you can do a better job. So you volunteer yourself to create change and ensure you can do things your way, implement your values, your methods and your beliefs.  Or maybe you’re a creative spirit and feel you can really enhance the current service offering in a collaborative manner.

8. Personal ambition

Some people join boards or organisations on a pro bono basis with the primary aim of building professional networks, increasing their personal corporate governance experience and improving their résumé. Others enjoy volunteering their energies to boards or committees because their volunteer position yields power. Whilst a combination of the first seven motivating factors above still applies (especially ‘direct influence’) and the volunteering is meritorious, the primary driver is personal ambition.


Volunteers can be driven by a range of motivating factors above. They are valuable members of society who are critical to the delivery of public value. Irrespective of motives, volunteers are commendable for giving up their personal time in delivering these benefits for others.

If you’re a volunteer, can you resonate with any of the above motivating factors? Can you think of any other reasons?

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