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Motivating Your Volunteers: Needs, Barriers, and Psychology 101

Author: Lori Halley
January 22, 2009
🕑 6 min read

Nonprofits are good at showing appreciation
to their volunteers in a wide variety of thoughtful ways, and those
thank-you gestures are vital. No one can be expected to carry on
indefinitely with work that goes unappreciated. But finding ways to motivate volunteers and keep them engaged can be a real challenge.

Rewards are not the
most powerful kind of human motivation — because a reward by definition
follows the act. Motivation, on the other hand, is what gives the volunteer a reason to step up in the first place.  And just as there are two ways to reward someone — to give
something they like, or take away something they don’t like —
motivation also has two sides.

We can create opportunities to volunteer
that are designed meet the needs of our supporters, or we can remove
the barriers that might keep them from volunteering.

Ideally, we’ll do
both — but removing the barriers has to come first, if volunteer
activities can hope to compete with all the other attractive demands on busy people’s
time and attention.

Forget about trying to recruit and motivate people until you
first learn how to stop chasing them away. What are you now doing that
discourages people from participating more actively in your group or
cause? … People make choices as to what groups and activities they
become involved in, and how much time they give to each, based on their
perception of these costs and benefits. They consciously, and
unconsciously, weigh one against the other. If the perceived costs
outweigh the perceived benefits, they drop out of the group or become
less active. These costs then become barriers to participation.
~ Nebraska 4-H Volunteer Leaders Toolkit

Will door-to-door canvassing let me visit with friends and neighbors I don’t get to see very often?  If there’s a need to be filled, there’s a motive for volunteering.

If I agree to host the big fundraiser, does it mean I’ve got to rent a tux?  If so, there’s a literal, out-of-pocket cost attached to this
volunteer opportunity. But will that cost be a barrier for the
volunteer? It depends in part on his financial resources, but also on
whether his unfulfilled needs — for attention, for peer approval, for
social interaction, whatever — outweigh the costs of that tuxedo rental.

diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needsHow can we begin to identify not only the needs waiting to be
fillled, but also the barriers that may stand in the way of volunteers?

Dr. Abraham Maslow came up with a model for understanding basic human motivators or drives, a Hierarchy of Needs.
You may remember seeing it as a pyramid diagram: the broad bottom tier
is the things we need to ensure survival, and it goes up from there
into ever more complex groups of needs related to quality of life and
personal fulfillment.

For those who forget Psych 101, Maslow believed that while humans
have a wide range of needs, they must first meet very basic survival
needs like food, shelter and water before they are able to pursue
psychological needs like love, esteem and self-actualization. It makes
sense— if you are starving to death, a BLT is more attractive than some
~ Aaron Hurst

You’ll find other models to explain the mysteries of motivation, but
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can help to organize our thinking about all
sorts of human behaviors from social networking, to Web2.0 fundraising campaigns, to music education. And the better you know and understand your volunteers, the more useful the tool is likely to be.

No volunteer is going to come in and tell you they are interested in
your opportunity because they lack in one or more areas of the
‘Hierarchy of Human Needs’. However, if you listen closely to what they
tell you and if you ask the right questions, you’ll soon learn what
areas they are lacking, and … determine if the volunteer opportunity
you have will pay them the psychological wages to keep them for life.
~ Art Femister


 “I’d love to help you, but…”

Motivation is only part of the equation, remember. Would you expect
a bare-footed volunteer to climb a mountain for your cause? No matter
what reward or incentive is at the end of the journey, first he’ll need
to have a pair of boots. And a rope. And maybe a climbing partner, too,
depending on the challenge ahead.

Am I physically, emotionally, intellectually capable of doing
this for you? If I do this for you, what will volunteering cost me, in
terms of needs that are not fulfilled, or in things I value that I will
have to give up?


The practical, physical and/or logistical barriers — those that
match up with the most basic level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — are
certainly the easiest to identify, and probably the easiest to overcome.

  • No transportation to the event?  Maybe you can arrange for a car pool, or change to a venue that’s on a public bus route.
  • No wheelchair access to the board room? Maybe you can find another place to meet, or dial in a conference call.
  • No time to fix a meal between a day on the job and an evening of
    envelope-stuffing? Maybe you can bring in pizza, or schedule the work
    for a weekend.

You get the idea…

As we start looking at barriers that relate to the more complex
personal needs, however,  there may be more questions than answers.

Safety: Is there a financial risk attached to volunteering?
Will the volunteer risk his job, for example, if he steps up for a
cause? In the military, a liaison team works directly with employers to
enable Reservists to take time off for training and service without

Love/Belonging: Time given to nonprofit is time that’s not
available to spend with family, for example. Can we find ways to
include the children of volunteers in projects and events?

Esteem: Will a youth who works with his grandfather’s service
club quite happily behind the scenes draw the line at appearing in
public with a group that lacks the “coolness factor”? Might a volunteer
who lacks self-esteem turn down your request for their help, rather
than tackle a task that seems too challenging?

Self-actualization: Prejudice, lack of social conscience,
denial of facts… I’m not sure these types of deep-rooted psychological
barriers can be overcome, unless education might help to do it over

People are so very complicated, of course there’s never going to be one easy formula. But I find myself drawn to Maslow’s Hierarchy as a strategy-planning tool because it gives a starting point for action (those practical, physiological needs and barriers) — with a clear route (up through the levels of the pyramid) to travel from there. Remember the example that Aaron Hurst gave? If you are starving to death, a BLT is more attractive than some TLC.  To me, it makes sense to make sure your volunteers can get across town to attend your meeting, first, and concern yourself with who needs a hug once they’ve made it in the door. Hugs, yes, very important — but first things first.

What do you think? Is this a useful approach for trying to understand the factors that affect your volunteers, and impact your nonprofit’s operations as a result — or can you suggest another way of thinking about those needs and barriers?

Experience in the nonprofit trenches can attest that Dr. Maslow
got it right on several points, at least — the majority of functioning people do have a need to belong to a group, to respect themselves and be respected, and to contribute to society in a meaningful way. With the right motivation to meet their needs, volunteers will do what they can. Take down whatever barriers you can identify, then, and you may just to find that your volunteers can do a great deal more than you ever thought possible.

Does this ring true to you?  

Read More: How to Write a Volunteer Program Report That Proves Your Volunteers’ Impact

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