Designing a Motivating Volunteer Experience

Designing aVolunteer ExperienceThe same principles of motivation that help designers create motivating digital experiences can be applied to real-life leadership challenges, including leading a volunteer team. As a member of the Junior League of Boston, I’ve seen firsthand how leaders who connect volunteers to purpose and to each other can help their teams achieve more (and have fun along the way). Self-determination theory suggests that motivational leaders help their volunteers answer yes to three basic questions:

  • Do I matter?
  • Does my work make a difference?
  • Do I belong?

Here are some tactics that can help people give an enthusiastic yes to each question.

Do I matter?

Supporting someone’s autonomy includes allowing them to make choices that are meaningful to them. We would hope that people start any volunteer experience with some sense of meaning, given that they have selected a specific cause for which to contribute their efforts. That doesn’t let volunteer leaders off the hook for offering meaningful choices, however. In the Junior League, one important choice we offer members is which of the available community and internal placements they’d like to work on each year, which helps members select the skill sets they want to develop and the new experiences they want to gain.

Another area of choice that can help people feel like their preferences and needs matter is giving flexibility in what it means to be a successful volunteer. It can be a challenge to balance requirements with flexibility, to be certain; any volunteer organization counts on its members contributing a certain amount of time and perhaps money toward its mission. But wherever you can build in flexibility, you may help people more firmly engage with the cause.

Another quick tip to help people realize their volunteer efforts matter:¬†Thank them. It’s easy to do, and consequently, also easy to overlook.

Does my work make a difference?

As I mentioned above, many volunteers choose to spend their time with an organization whose core mission matters to them. Over time, a good leader will work to make sure volunteers don’t lose sight of how their efforts continue to benefit that cause.

One tactic is to tie every volunteer activity back to a greater goal. Stuffing and stamping envelopes may not feel important, but if that’s a key part of soliciting financial donations that will fund a new animal shelter, it suddenly seems more meaningful. Two hours spent staffing an event feels minor, but what if that event helped the volunteer organization forge a relationship with a key community partner?

Another tactic is to provide ongoing metrics showing how volunteers’ efforts add up to a whole. How many hours has your group donated so far this year? How many dollars raised? How many children mentored, meals served, animals comforted? These sorts of metrics will help volunteers realize the power of their collective contributions.

Some of our community impact from the Junior League of Boston Annual Report.
Some of our community impact from the Junior League of Boston Annual Report.

Do I belong?

Aside from passion for a charitable cause, another reason many people choose to volunteer their time is to meet like-minded individuals. A strong leader helps volunteers feel connected both to each other and to the communities that they serve (not dissimilar from the types of relationships firefighters foster within the force and the community).

Leaders can help build relatedness at multiple levels. A more “fun” tactic is to infuse the volunteer experience with social opportunities, whether it’s grabbing a meal or drinks outside of volunteer shifts or creating a social networking group where people can share photos and conversation. ¬†More work-related, leaders can create sub-projects which volunteers then own in small teams–a tactic that could also support autonomy and choice.

In the Junior League, a unique tool we have to feel a sense of connection is membership in the Association of Junior Leagues International, or AJLI. This governing group ties together Junior Leagues worldwide, and provides events and trainings that emphasize the common mission across nearly 300 Leagues. This type of organization helps virtual bonds feel real.

As a volunteer leader, are there larger groups you can orient toward to help your volunteers feel connected, whether it’s a formal organization like the Humane Society or a more virtual one like “animal lovers”?

Help Volunteers Say Yes

I’ve addressed this advice to people in formal leadership positions at volunteer organizations, but the fact is, we are all leaders. Regardless of whether you are a board member or a new volunteer, you have the ability to help others and yourself see the value of the work you’re doing. How will you try to help people feel that they matter, that their work makes a difference, and that they belong?