Idea 9: Understand what motivates volunteers.

As the Literacy Basics website reminds us, “Remember that volunteers come to you because of something they want -not something you want.” (Kaattari, n.d.). In BC, most volunteers want to make a difference in their community (Vodarek, Lasby & Clarke, 2010). This altruistic motivation echoes findings from other studies, including Community Literacy of Ontario’s study of literacy volunteers (Voo & Kaattari, 2010).

Recent research (Volunteer Canada, 2010) indicates that volunteers have additional motivations that vary with their stage in the life cycle. Young people want work experience, skill development, and the opportunity to meet new people; employer-supported volunteers want to learn new skills (not necessarily the same skills as they use at work); boomers want to pass on their knowledge. The same study also indicated that volunteers today are different in that they tend to be more goal-oriented, have greater structure in their lives, are mobile, are technologically savvy, value autonomy, and have multiple interests and roles. Understanding what motivates volunteers helps in the recruitment process and ultimately in volunteer satisfaction.

Voices from the field:

  • If I knew then what I know now, I would take more time to observe, interact with, ask more questions and get more input from the volunteers and potential volunteers on many things, but mainly what kind of experience they are looking for and what support they are wanting/needing.
  • Try to determine why they want to tutor.
  • As I think about our tutors, here at the motivations that come to mind:
    • to give back
    • a feeling of doing something important that makes a difference in someone’s lives
    • they have time now that they are retired
    • retired teachers who still enjoy being part of the ‘learning scene’
    • getting to know the community as they arrive as newcomers
    • get experience (I think of this one with young volunteers who have a bit of experience and have just graduated and want to work with ESL learners)
    • wanting to volunteer in a setting that allows them one on one time with someone and doing something of value
  • It is wonderful when people in our community come forward to help others in the community who are struggling. There is a real sense of value for the volunteers who are working with people who live in their town.
  • Volunteers have come to us because they have chosen to give their time to our program. For this reason they are keen to help and willing to listen to the learner. I see a wonderful partnership that forms and in most cases the tutors seem to get just as much out of the experience as the learners.

To learn more:

Ellis, S. J. (2002). The volunteer recruitment (and membership development) book. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Energize.
» This book covers the basics in recruiting volunteers and more. Includes a chapter on why people volunteer … and why they don’t.

Vodarek, L., Lasby, D. & Clarke, B. (2010). Giving and volunteering in British Columbia: findings from the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and participating. Retrieved from
» Provides a profile of volunteers in BC, including what volunteers do, how they become involved, and reasons for volunteering.

Volunteer Canada. (2010). Bridging the gap: enriching the volunteer experience to build a better future for our communities. Retrieved from
» This summary of a pan-Canadian research study presents findings on what Canadians are looking for in volunteering and how organizations are engaging volunteers. Points to gaps between what volunteers are looking for and what organizations offer, and notes new trends in volunteering based on advances in technology and shifting demographics. Outlines characteristics of family volunteers, workplace volunteers, baby boomer volunteers and youth volunteers.

Voo, A. & Kaattari, J. (2010). Literacy volunteers: value added. Retrieved from
» This section of the Literacy Volunteers Value Added website outlines the volunteer motivations revealed in the Value Added project research.

Last updated: November 12, 2015