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IU SPEA scholar and IU alumna cooperate on book examining volunteer motivations

When Monica Dignam needed to research volunteer motivation, she sought out the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs' top-ranked nonprofit management program. There she found Beth Gazley, an assistant professor who researches voluntarism and volunteer management, inter-sectoral relations and collaboration.

Their joint research has now been developed into a landmark book: The Decision to Volunteer: Why People Give Their Time and How You Can Engage Them.

Dignam received her graduate degree from the IU College of Arts and Sciences in 1977, and is now vice president of industry research and market research at ASAE (American Society of Association Executives) and The Center for Association Leadership, which sponsored the study and published the resulting book.

Gazley spent 15 years in nonprofit management and consulting before earning her doctorate. She became involved in the study due to an interest in translating research into practice, and because, she said, "this really is an under-studied area from a research point of view."

The Decision to Volunteer, the first study to look at both association and community volunteering, included a comprehensive survey sent to members of 23 co-sponsoring organizations. Some 26,305 members responded, representing a range of professional fields including engineering, finance, medicine and education.

According to Gazley, most previous research on volunteerism has looked at charitable organizations like the Red Cross. Charitable organizations comprise two-thirds of the sector, but a good portion of the remainder includes member-serving organizations like professional and technical societies, such as the American Nursing Association, which participated in the study. Charitable research allows for inferences in some voluntary activities, but Gazley points out gaps in our understanding of some other types of volunteerism.

"We've been so focused on community volunteering that we don't even know what non-charitable volunteers do, much less what management models are out there that might help the sector overall," Gazley said.

This study examines volunteer activities performed for professional associations such as member recruitment, board and committee service, fund raising, as well as working on committees to develop professional standards and presenting testimony to legislators and government study commissions. These activities are very different from those typical to charitable work, where volunteers are more likely to be involved in direct service to clients.

Professional volunteerism also is different because often there is a much stronger expectation that the work will be compensated somehow. Professional volunteers might also bring a stronger interest in skill building and career advancement through volunteer service. According to Gazley, however, community and professional volunteers share the same interest in volunteering for a combination of other-serving, or altruistic, and self-serving, or instrumental, reasons. This set of "pro-social" motivations underlies all volunteer activity.

"But one of the things we were interested in was whether the instrumental motivations had more salience with professional volunteering than with community volunteering. We found that it did, but only marginally," Gazley said. She said people volunteer for mainly the same reasons -- it gives them a chance to act on values that are important to them.

"The ability to act on one's values or promote one's values -- that was the No. 1 reason people gave for professional volunteering, and it's the same for community volunteering," Gazley said.

The study found that professionals who are active in their professional societies are passionate about what their particular society brings to the profession. Similar to how many people give back to their communities through volunteerism, professionals often see an opportunity to give back to their professional missions.

Other key findings of the study included:

  • Association members are highly engaged in their communities and volunteer more than the national average.
  • Passive recruitment techniques are not effective; the "direct ask" is an important tool for getting members to volunteer.
  • Volunteers who have meaningful experiences are more likely to volunteer again.
  • Low-level volunteers, not just board and committee members, need to be recognized and encouraged if they are to keep volunteering.
  • Associations have been slow to adopt strategies that encourage volunteering.

So far, Gazley has received positive feedback and acknowledgment from association professionals that the study results correspond with people's real world experience.

"The book was designed to provide as many practical 'take-aways' as possible," she said.

And one valuable take-away is the connection between professional experience and volunteer longevity. Many nonprofits express concern over the rate of turnover in volunteer ranks and the resources required to continually recruit new volunteers. The study shows that by tying volunteering to professional activity, people may stay with the volunteer activity longer because their professions are generally long-lasting.

The study also found that younger association members volunteer less but are more likely to see the benefits of volunteering. Gazley suggests that associations can act strategically on both of these findings by offering younger members volunteer roles that can be expanded as their skills grow.

"Younger age groups have been successfully socialized through school and community programs to view volunteering as a useful civic activity," Gazley said, "but they lack entrée in many professional societies where seniority is valued."

Gazley argues for a "sea change" in the way that professional associations view their younger members, and suggests that they can accrue multiple benefits with better recruitment and retention efforts to attract young members and keep them involved. Professional associations could develop different types of volunteer roles to mirror different stages in a career path, so people don't get burned out or bored.

Finally, Gazley reinforced that all organizations need to understand the basics of an effective volunteer management program, particularly an understanding from leadership about the strategic value of volunteers for that association.

"The message I take away from this is that money isn't everything -- you need adequately resourced volunteer programs, but very often the most important volunteer management activities are quite cost-effective," said Gazley. "They depend on staff and boards' recognizing the value that volunteers bring to promoting the mission of the organization publicly. Staff and board members need to understand that happy volunteers are happy members, and vice versa."

For more information about The Decision to Volunteer, please visit