Motivating Volunteers

motivating volunteers

Some tasks that we need our volunteers to perform are dull. Necessary, but boring. Filing. Cleaning. Security. Motivating volunteers to do the less pleasant tasks well can be challenging.

According to Dan Pink in his TED talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation“, real motivation comes from three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Not money. Not prestige. Intrinsic things, that power our sense of self-worth, and make us feel that we are valued by our organization.

This is good news for not-for-profits. We tend not to have a lot of money or prestige to throw around, but we can provide opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose (especially purpose!)

Say you run a thrift store, and you need your volunteers to sort through dozens of garbage bags full of donated clothes, select those that are saleable, price and display them. Boring. Possibly dirty. Unappealing.

How do you get your volunteers to embrace the task?


If you allow the volunteers to choose for themselves how they accomplish the work, they will be happier, and they may also come up with innovative ways that make the task easier and faster. Perhaps they will split the process up into chunks, and assign one portion to each volunteer; or maybe each volunteer does a certain number of bags; or it may be that they come up with something that we would never have thought of ourselves.

Whatever task needs doing, find ways to give your volunteers choices about how, when or where they are done.

In other words, give them autonomy.


By showing them new ways of doing things and exposing talents that they didn’t know they had, the work itself becomes more interesting. Teach them how to determine if an item will sell, how to judge the value of it, and how to display the item in an effective way. They will become more skilled and knowledgeable, which gives them satisfaction, while at the same time increasing their value to you.

Many people volunteer to gain experience and skill. Find ways to give them that.

Allow them to gain mastery.


Don’t assume that simply by working at a not-for-profit, people will feel a sense of purpose. Show them how the task that they are working on makes a difference.  By letting them know that the money raised from the thrift store is used to support the local animal shelter, you give them a reason for making sure they select the clothing carefully, and assign appropriate prices.

Draw a definite line between the task, however boring or unappealing, and the reason it’s being done. People want to feel that what they do has meaning, so make that meaning as clear as possible.

Show them the purpose.


If you spend a bit of time finding ways to give your volunteers autonomy, mastery and purpose, regardless of the task that needs to be done, you will find that they become far more motivated. They will be more reliable, more committed, and more enthusiastic volunteers. And who doesn’t want that?

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