Getting the right members into the right volunteer roles is a constant challenge for associations, and poor fit is a major drag on efficiency. A “volunteer interest typology” developed by a pair of social science researchers may offer some help.
Associations depend heavily on the work of volunteers, people willing and eager to contribute to the good of their industry or profession. In key leadership roles (particularly boards of directors), those people are often carefully vetted for their skills, knowledge, and interests. But in most other association volunteer roles—ranging from committees all the way down to ad hoc odd jobs—the reality is often that any warm body will do. And any association volunteer manager can tell you the ensuing results are hit and miss.
Over 40 percent of people in our final study were … volunteering in a position in which they didn’t have much interest.
Poor volunteer fit is a matter of inefficiency, and nonprofits have long sought better ways to find volunteers most suited to their organizations’ needs. A new paper published online in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly adds evidence to the depth of the problem. In “Investigating Similarities and Differences Between Volunteer Behaviors: Development of a Volunteer Interest Typology” [full text free until January 20, 2016], researchers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Minnesota surveyed a group of 244 college students and evaluated how well their interests and motivations aligned with their past and current volunteer experiences.
“We found that people engaged in volunteer behaviors that they have more interest in (‘matched volunteers’) reported more satisfaction with the position, as compared to people engaged in a volunteer behavior that they did not have interest in (‘non-matched volunteers’),” the study reports. “The evidence for this matching effect was strong.”
If that strikes you as intuitive, then consider the potential scale of the problem. Alexander Maki, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt and coauthor of the study, says he was surprised by how many people had volunteered in roles ill-suited to them. “Over 40 percent of people in our final study were actually considered a ‘non-matched’ volunteer, someone volunteering in a position in which they didn’t have much interest,” Maki wrote in an email.
Luckily, the paper also proffers a tool for helping to solve that problem. To evaluate volunteers’ interests, Maki and coauthor Mark Snyder, Ph.D., professor at the University of Minnesota, developed an eight-category “Volunteer Interest Typology,” which they suggest can be of practical use to volunteer-driven organizations. The categories, as Maki outlines in a related blog post:
- Administrative: helping nonprofits and community organizations with administrative duties
- Animal: helping nonhuman animals
- Donating: donation-based helping
- Political: cause- or issue-based advocacy
- Interpersonal, Autonomy: helping other people gain new skills
- Interpersonal, Dependency: helping other people meet their immediate needs
- Physical, Built: creating or maintaining built structures
- Physical, Environmental: helping the natural environment
The categories aren’t designed to be absolute and discrete but are meant rather “to provide a useful and conceptually driven way of organizing interest in different types of volunteer activities,” Maki and Snyder write. Board service, for instance, could be considered to involve multiple categories, Maki says, including administrative, donating, and political.
The study also looked at existing volunteer-motivation research and how certain behaviors or motivations aligned with the eight categories. Empathy, for instance, correlated with interest in dependency, donating, and animal volunteering. Physical volunteering (built and environmental), meanwhile, correlated with motivations related to compassion, learning, and applying skills in new contexts. Some volunteer categories matched with several behaviors and motivations.
In 2013, Jeffrey Cufaude, principal of Idea Architects, wrote about the importance of asking members a simple question: “How might you like to contribute?” Crucial, he noted, is the open-ended nature of the question, an improvement over the narrowly focused “Do you want to volunteer?” And he lamented associations’ general lack of action in volunteer matching: “Ridiculously obvious? Well, of course. But in my 25+ years of belonging to a variety of professional organizations, I have never—I repeat, never—been surveyed to learn what I care about and how I might like to act on that caring.”
ASAE’s 2008 study The Decision to Volunteer found many of the barriers to volunteering were within associations’ power to change, “unclear roles” being just one example. “In fact, the number one reason [individuals] did not volunteer was a lack of information about the opportunities,” authors Beth Gazley, Ph.D., and Monica Dignam wrote.
Maki suggests the Volunteer Interest Typology could help with these challenges, and he has published the VIT questionnaire [PDF] online for others to use. “Volunteer managers can use the VIT to assess the interests of new volunteers and use it as a springboard to launch into a richer conversation with their volunteers about why the individual wants to volunteer and the types of activities to which they are drawn,” Maki says. “For example, individuals higher in empathy might be more satisfied volunteering to help someone directly through hands-on activities, and the VIT can help organizations match these kinds of people to those kinds of positions.”
If one-to-one volunteer matching is difficult to scale, the VIT could also help associations draw better-matched self-selected volunteers through clearer description or classification of open volunteer opportunities, as well as through promoting opportunities in ways that target their corresponding interests and motivations.
“Organizations advertising too many options could overwhelm potential volunteers,” Maki says. “The VIT distills all of the types of volunteer positions into eight categories, supported by data from both volunteers and nonvolunteers, and makes it easier to highlight distinct types of positions to potential volunteers.”
How does your association fill volunteer roles now? Do you find volunteers roles too often filled inadequately? Could these categories of volunteering help your association better understand how to match volunteers with roles? Share your thoughts in the comments.