Removing Barriers to Volunteer Work

Volunteerism in the U.S. is declining due to various challenges, including the impact of COVID-19. While nonprofits often focus on boosting motivation, effectively reducing barriers might be the key. 

We at Human Scale Business have the privilege of hosting 14 nonprofit leaders in a series of conversations regarding managing high-performance volunteers. As a long-time volunteer for a youth sports organization, I have a personal and professional interest in the topic. A recurrent theme in the group’s discussions has been the intensified challenge of recruiting and retaining volunteers.

I’m not an expert in nonprofit management. However, I perceive some parallels with the for-profit world with which I’m more familiar. In particular, I suspect there may be meaningful opportunities to reduce the barriers to volunteerism through creative and careful process redesign and, quite possibly, the selective use of automation.

Declining Rates of Volunteerism

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the volunteer rate in the U.S. showed a general decline in the years leading up to 2022. Multiple factors may have contributed to the decline, including economic stress, generational shifts, technological distractions, and a decline in social cohesion. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact due to its disruption of in-person activities and the normal progression of volunteers’ skills, experience, and leadership opportunities. Given this decline, it’s more important than ever to understand the factors that motivate and inhibit volunteer work.

Motivating Volunteers

Nonprofit organizations that depend on volunteers have responded by redoubling their efforts to motivate volunteers by emphasizing several forms of non-monetary compensation, including the following.

  • Purpose and Impact: The desire to make a meaningful difference and contribute positively to a cause or community.
  • Personal Growth and Fulfillment: Personal satisfaction, spiritual growth, or a sense of purpose through volunteering.
  • Skill Development and Learning: The opportunity to gain new skills or enhance existing ones, potentially aiding in professional growth.
  • Social Connections: Building relationships, friendships, and a sense of camaraderie with like-minded individuals.
  • Recognition and Appreciation: The intrinsic and extrinsic acknowledgments and validations received for one’s efforts and contributions.

Fueling Motivation

In The Human Element, Nordgren and Schonthal introduce the concept that humans tend to “think in fuel.” This means that when trying to influence behavior, people often default to boosting motivation (adding fuel) rather than reducing barriers (lowering friction). This tendency arises because motivational factors are typically more salient and easier to identify.

For instance, if someone isn’t acting according to our desires, our first instinct might be to incentivize them further, thinking they lack motivation. We might try to offer more rewards, provide encouragement, or emphasize the benefits of the desired action. Rarely is our first instinct to consider and reduce the obstacles or frictions that might be inhibiting that action.

The Friction that Inhibits Volunteerism

However, as Nordgren and Schonthal point out, reducing friction can often be a more effective and efficient way to change behavior. The sources of friction that can inhibit volunteerism include the following.

  • Complexity in Onboarding: Cumbersome sign-up procedures, background checks, or training sessions can deter potential volunteers.
  • Unclear Roles and Expectations: Ambiguity regarding the volunteer’s tasks, responsibilities, or the impact of their role can lead to hesitancy or dissatisfaction.
  • Inflexible Scheduling: A lack of flexibility in volunteering hours or the inability to cater to different time commitments can be a deterrent.
  • Lack of Support and Resources: Insufficient training, mentorship, or resources can make the volunteering process challenging and discouraging.
  • Physical and Logistical Barriers: Issues such as difficult-to-reach locations, lack of transportation, or the absence of remote volunteering options can be significant obstacles.

By understanding and addressing the barriers that stand in the way of volunteerism, we can make it easier for the inherent motivations (or even modest motivations) to drive the behavior forward. Thoughtful process design and the judicious use of automation are potential leverage points.

Addressing Motivation and Obstacles

Consider the (fictitious) case of a nonprofit that aims to beautify and maintain urban green spaces. It relies heavily on volunteers for weekend clean-ups and planting events. However, there has been a decline in volunteer participation over time.

Increasing Motivation

The nonprofit might add fuel in a variety of ways:

  • Recognition and Rewards: The nonprofit might recognize the “Volunteer of the Month” and offer small rewards, such as gift cards to local businesses or branded merchandise like t-shirts.
  • Community Impact Stories: To make impact more visible, the organization might share before-and-after photos of the green spaces, testimonials from community members about the difference the green spaces make in their lives, and data on increased usage of these spaces.
  • Skill Development: Workshops might be organized where volunteers can learn more about gardening, landscape design, and sustainability, thus adding a personal development component to their participation.

Reducing Obstacles

Equally, the nonprofit might identify ways to reduce potential obstacles to volunteer participation:

  • Accessible Locations: Maybe some volunteers don’t join because the green spaces are difficult to access by public transportation. In response, the nonprofit might consider organizing carpools or shuttles from central locations.
  • Flexible Timing: Weekends might not be free for everyone. The organization could offer weekday evening events or shorter “lunch break” sessions.
  • Clear Communication: The nonprofit might revamp its website and communication tools to provide clearer instructions, FAQs, and easy-to-find schedules. A hotline and a chat service for immediate inquiries might even make sense.

Add Fuel and Reduce Friction

As the landscape of volunteering continues to evolve, nonprofits need to be agile, innovative, and empathetic in their approach. For those of us who’ve experienced the joys and challenges of volunteering firsthand, the question becomes: How can we help organizations tap into the immense potential of motivated volunteers while also eliminating roadblocks that stand in their way? It’s a challenge worth tackling for the betterment of our communities.

Additional Resources

Even though we may tend to emphasize motivation over friction-reduction, the importance of breaking down of barriers to volunteering is not, of course, a new insight. Check out these organizations for ideas on increasing volunteer engagement by reducing barriers.

  • VolunteerMatch: VolunteerMatch is a platform that connects volunteers with non-profits and organizations in need. Beyond its matchmaking capabilities, the website offers resources and insights for organizations to create effective volunteer programs. This includes advice on lowering barriers to entry for volunteers, ensuring they can contribute effectively.
  • Energize, Inc.: Energize, Inc. is dedicated to educating and assisting leaders of volunteers worldwide. This this website offers a wide range of resources, including articles, books, and training on various topics. Among these resources are discussions about the barriers to volunteerism and how to overcome them.
  • Points of Light: Points of Light is an international nonprofit organization that promotes volunteer service. They offer a range of resources, from how to find volunteer opportunities to guidance for organizations on how to run effective volunteer programs. Points of Light often discusses the challenges in volunteerism and provides solutions for overcoming barriers.

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