What Motivates Volunteers

POSTED: March 13, 2014
By Bill Nance, a 15 year youth ministry veteran, having served in various churches in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. He currently lives in Grove City, OH and works at Mid-Ohio Food Bank helping churches and other agencies feed hungry people. He also speaks and writes.

The lifeblood of youth ministry is in the volunteers. No ministry can long survive or hope to be successful without help from adults who give their time and energy on a regular basis. Yet I believe very few of us truly understand the motivations behind why people volunteer. Without understanding what motivates people, we can’t successfully recruit, train or grow our team.

These motivators are the driving force behind what each volunteer does. We would hope that everyone would minister because they love Jesus and want to serve His Kingdom by loving on teens. However, people are complicated and confusing. They may say all the right things you want to hear, but their true motivations may not be obvious.

Have you ever worked with a volunteer and dealt with the following –
• Trouble getting them to commit to their role?
• Unexpected and unexplainable conflict between you and a volunteer or between a group of volunteers?
• Volunteers not buying in to the vision?
• A lack of team unity?

When we don’t understand the motivation, these behaviors seem foreign and unexpected. We think the volunteer is a bad apple, or that we’re bad at recruiting and training volunteers (or both!). Neither one is necessarily true. But when we don’t understand WHY a person has volunteered, we can’t figure out how to move them from that motivator to a better one.

When you only work with a handful of volunteers, it can be difficult to get a handle on the different motivators. I spent my first 12 years in ministry struggling mightily at times to recruit and develop volunteers. Some were great. Many more were ok. Some were disasters. They weren’t bad people, and I did most things right in how I was developing them, but I missed the key piece of motivators.
It didn’t click until I started working a new position in a secular non-profit. In my “non-ministry” job, I worked with over 13,000 volunteers a year, oftentimes more than 100 a day.I’ve had a bigger sample size to witness and evaluate. I have found 7 motivators that push people to volunteer. Here is what I’ve found…

1. Guilt
This one is most obvious. They are volunteering because they would feel bad not to do so. This internal motivator springs from their own beliefs about God, the church, and their role in it.
Example – The lady that has taught Sunday School for the past 25 years, even though for the last 10 she has no energy or desire to do it anymore.

2. Force
While guilt is an internal motivator, force is an external motivator applied by someone else. This doesn’t mean they are forced by gun-point, but it does mean that others are pushing or manipulation them to serve.
Example –The college student serving in your ministry because they need community service hours to graduate.

3. Fun
Not all motivators are bad. Volunteering can be a fun experience. Youth ministry can be a very fun time, and people want to recapture the youth ministry experience of their teen years.
Example – The 20-something girl who offers to volunteer for every fun event and loves to have a great time with the teens.

4. Expectations
Sometimes it’s just expected that a person volunteers. This one is not as strong as guilt, and while there may be some external pressure it’s not overwhelming. Instead, this is just something they’re supposed to do. They probably have little passion or desire to serve in this particular area, but they do it out of duty.
Example – A person serves in the nursery because they figure that is what a good Christian will do.

5. Do Good

People often serve out of altruistic motives, and a desire to do good things is a great one. It’s just a general desire to do something nice, and what it is doesn’t usually matter. They might not have much of a desire to do what you want them to do, but they always want to help.
Example – The person who says, “I’ll do anything, just let me know what you need!”

6. Relationship
They serve because they like the other person/people they volunteer with. They just love spending time with their friends, and the “what” they do isn’t so important as the who they are with.
Example – The husband/wife team who volunteers to teach youth group.

7. Vision
Some people buy into your vision, and are motivated by it and how they fit into that vision. They get excited by it. They get pushed by it. Vision becomes its own continuing motivator.

Obviously, we want all of our volunteers to be inspired by #7. We want our volunteers to catch the vision and run with it. Volunteers who are motivated by vision generally last longer and work harder than those motivated by #’s 1-6.

That does not always happen, though. It is important to realize that these motivators are also the reason people STOP volunteering. The person who is motivated by guilt can also stop feeling guilty or guilt from something else becomes stronger. The person motivated by fun will often stop when it stops being fun. Those motivated by relationship will be less eager to serve when the relationship bonds are severed.

What starts people motivating can vary, but you can get them motivated by vision. Continually keep your vision and passion front and center. On an individual level, identify why your volunteers are serving, and then link that reason to your vision. For example, a person serves because it’s fun. You might say, “Man, there is nothing more fun than seeing a teen give their life to Christ!” Or, if a person is motivated by force, say, “I appreciate you giving your time. Here is how what you do fits into our vision.” If you continually bring it back to the vision, they will either embrace it or bow out.