3.1 Volunteering as a Process

The initial decision to volunteer should be distinguished from the willingness to continue to do so and to show effort. In the process of volunteering, new factors influencing motivation become apparent. The specific nature of the tasks that volunteers undertake, the behavior of the volunteer coordinator, contact with the people who are to benefit from the commitment, cooperation with other volunteers and professional staff of the organization, the reactions of the private environment, and the policies and strategies of the organization as a whole: these factors and many more influence whether volunteers develop a feeling of solidarity during the course of their engagement, and a commitment to the organization (e.g., Alfes et al., 2017; Grant, 2012; McBey et al., 2017; Nencini et al., 2016). To further emphasize the process perspective on volunteering, Chacón et al. (2007) developed a three-stage model of volunteers’ duration (see Fig. 3.1).

Fig. 3.1
figure 1

Functional approach and role identity theory in a temporal context (cf. Chacón et al., 2007); figure taken from van Schie et al. (2015). Chacón et al. (2007) developed this three-stage approach based on the functional approach (Clary et al., 1998; Stukas et al., 2009) and the role identity approach (Grube & Piliavin, 2000). This process perspective was empirically corroborated by Vecina et al. (2010)

For volunteers who work in an organization over an extended period, the role they play becomes an essential part of their own identity (Penner, 2002; Piliavin & Callero, 1991; Piliavin et al., 2002; Thoits, 2021). Grube and Piliavin (2000) distinguish between a general role identity as a volunteer and an organization-specific role identity. If this stage is reached in the process of volunteering, the commitment is less easily called into question, even in the face of adversity and disappointment, because volunteering expresses an important aspect of one’s own personality. In its strongest form, role identity means that the person engaging in this activity can be the person you truly are or want to be—in addition to other roles, of course. For organizations that want to work with volunteers, it is important to encourage the development of an organization-specific role identity, because volunteers who have developed a general role identity and who have a specific good cause at heart may decide to divert their limited voluntary time to other (competing) organizations within the field.

3.2 Three Basic Psychological Needs as Orientation

Self-determination theory offers an explanation of why some particular motives for volunteering are more closely associated with desirable goals. However, when it comes to designing volunteer work in a way that is self-fulfilling for the volunteers themselves and useful for the people and organizations that benefit from it, self-determination theory offers further concepts that provide orientation for such design considerations.

Basic psychological needs can be distilled from studies on self-determined or controlled types of motivation. The satisfaction of these basic needs is considered necessary for people to succeed in a fulfilling life—characterized by self-determination and freedom. Three basic psychological needs are identified (see Deci & Ryan, 2000):

  • Need for competence: People strive to deal competently with their social and material environment; expanding their own skills and abilities is a basic human need.

  • Need for autonomy: people strive to experience themselves as the origin of their own actions; having choices and not being subjected to any constraints is considered a basic need.

  • Need for relatedness: For healthy psychological development, people depend on being able to feel involved in close and often cultivated relationships with other people.

These three basic needs can be either satisfied or frustrated in different life contexts. Whether self-determined motivation can be experienced depends on the satisfaction of these needs, as illustrated by the following example: A volunteer is introduced very well to their area of responsibility and has the opportunity to receive continuous training in order to take on new tasks during the course of their commitment (need for competence). The coordinator encourages the volunteer to make their own decisions, responds with honest interest to questions, even if they contain criticism, and does not closely monitor the volunteer (need for autonomy). Finally, the volunteer feels part of a team; the atmosphere is characterized by mutual respect; there are other people involved in the volunteer work with whom they can also talk openly about personal issues; and socializing also finds its place (need for relatedness).

According to self-determination theory, the conditions are thus created, firstly for intrinsic motivation (the experience of optimal challenge and the experience of being absorbed in the activity), secondly for identified regulation (the insight into the necessity and meaning of various tasks, even if they are uninteresting or even unpleasant). While one might expect cultural differences in the relative importance of each need (for example, the need for autonomy might be higher in individualist than in collectivist societies), interestingly, each basic need is equally essential for psychological well-being throughout a broad range of highly varied cultures (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

3.3 Neglected Importance of Tasks and Organization

When designing volunteer work, it is possible to draw on the rich experience of work and organizational psychology in the context of gainful employment (for an overview of various concepts, see van Schie et al., 2015). Although theories should not be blindly transferred, but should always include the basic characteristics of volunteer work, it is nevertheless worthwhile for practitioners to be aware of established starting points, for example, in the design of tasks.

A classic concept for the evaluation and design of tasks, which is still used for orientation after 40 years, is Hackman and Oldham’s (1976) Job Characteristics Model. This model identifies five job characteristics that make up the motivational potential of a work activity (the following sample statements are formulated in relation to a volunteer activity):

  • Skill variety: (“In my volunteer activity I do many different things”).

  • Task identity: (“My volunteer activity is structured in such a way that I carry out a complete work process from start to finish”).

  • Task significance: (“My volunteer activity has a significant impact on the lives of other people”).

  • Autonomy: (“With my volunteer activity I can make many decisions independently”).

  • Feedback: from the activity itself (“When performing my volunteer activity I can easily determine how well I am working”).

Volunteering with high motivation potential strengthens both intrinsic motivation and the identified regulation of those tasks that are primarily useful and necessary but not necessarily interesting. Several studies (e.g., Maas et al., 2021; Millette & Gagné, 2008; Neufeind et al., 2013; van Schie et al., 2014, 2015) show that task design also pays off in the area of volunteering in order to support sustained engagement.

Making volunteer work more motivational does not mean that all tasks need to become cognitively more challenging. Even simpler tasks can be combined to form holistic task packages, and scope for independent decision-making can also be provided for less complex tasks. The activity characteristics “significance” and “feedback” pose a particular challenge. In many volunteer activities, the significance of the task for the lives of others seems so obvious that one might assume that one does not have to become active in making already motivational work even more appealing. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile finding creative ways to strengthen the relationship between volunteers and recipients and to make the impact of volunteering more visible. The concept of “relational job design” (Grant, 2007) provides valuable inspiration in this respect.

A striking feature of the organizational context is undoubtedly the leadership theme (for an overview, see Zaccaro et al., 2008). Not only in paid employment but also in volunteer work, managers or coordinators can have a positive influence on the motivation, satisfaction, and continuation intentions of their paid employees or unpaid staff (e.g., Benevene et al., 2020; Boezeman & Ellemers, 2014; Cho et al., 2020; Dwyer et al., 2013; Posner, 2015). Although the word leadership is initially surprising in the context of volunteers and unpaid workers, it can also be used to refer to a person who is voluntarily engaged: Formally active volunteers are usually guided by a coordinator from the NPO (non-profit organization). Volunteers themselves also find inadequate leadership and coordination problematic (Mathou, 2010). Some studies have shown that a leadership style that supports autonomy is particularly conducive to the motivation of volunteers (Baard et al., 2004; Haivas et al., 2012; Oostlander et al., 2014). In gainful employment, support for autonomy implies that supervisors show interest in their employees’ ideas, express confidence in their abilities, and encourage them to ask questions and be independent. Similarly, coordinators who create a sense of autonomy rather than control can promote motivation and, consequently, positive attitudes and intentions among volunteers.

Another feature of the social environment is the frequent discussion, especially in the context of volunteer work, of organizational recognition (Mathou, 2010). For example, Cnaan and Cascio (1998) recommend promoting the intrinsic motivation and productivity of volunteers by means of symbolic rewards (such as thank-you letters, certificates, free training, prizes). Güntert (2007), on the other hand, was able to show that organizational recognition brings not only positive but also negative aspects, as it can also create feelings of “duty” among volunteers. Some volunteers consider their being allowed to work as a volunteer to be recognition enough; additional recognition can therefore cause “slight stress” (see also van Schie et al., 2019). In summary, there is no generic recipe; instead, each setting requires the involvement of volunteers and the authenticity of all.

3.4 The Successful Design of Volunteer Work: An Empirical Study

The empirical study presented in the following was designed on the one hand to test the transferability of concepts from work and organizational psychology to volunteer work (cf. van Schie et al., 2015). On the other hand, it was also intended to identify relevant design characteristics for sustained engagement of volunteers. In this way, we contribute to closing a gap in volunteer research. The reported analyses are based on the information provided by 2222 volunteers from four major social and charitable organizations (NPO) in Switzerland, who were involved in 27 different projects. Over a period of 1.5 years, our study collected design characteristics and then (just over one year after the initial survey) indicators of sustained engagement from the same volunteers; thus, responses from 889 persons are available at two measurement points.

Overall, the results present the following picture:

From the volunteer’s point of view, the characteristics of the tasks (i.e., varied and significant tasks with direct feedback on work performance) are particularly relevant for an activity that is enjoyable from the volunteer’s perspective and that enables liveliness, dedication, and a feeling of being absorbed in the activity itself.

The task characteristics thus also indirectly promote volunteers’ commitment—to the benefit of the recipients of their assistance—because autonomously motivated volunteers are probably also more committed to the recipients (cf. Weinstein & Ryan, 2010).

The usually high level of satisfaction among volunteers can be maintained or improved if the components of the organizational framework, such as the flow of information and the coordinators’ management style, are consistent.

The volunteers’ loyalty to the NPO, on the other hand, is gained when the volunteers’ personal values are aligned with those of the organization. Only the perceived fit of the values also promotes the volunteers’ willingness to work towards purely organizational concerns (cf. Bahat, 2020).

Who was interviewed?

  • Age: Half of the volunteers surveyed were aged between 61 and 70, and almost a quarter were between 71 and 80 years old. Only 6.2% were aged 40 or younger.

  • Gender: Almost two-thirds of the volunteers interviewed were female, although there were large shifts in gender balance depending on the project.

  • Volume of volunteer work: Four out of five volunteers invest up to five hours per week in their work for the NPO. Only 3.2% commit 11 hours or more per week.

  • Duration of volunteer work: About 60% of the volunteers have been working for their organization for up to five years, with one in six having been with the organization for 11 years or more.

  • Commitment to recipient and NPO: Almost half of those surveyed volunteer not just for one but for several organizations at the same time.

The seven largest volunteer projects, which together make up almost 80% of the total sample are:

  1. 1.

    Integration project: Volunteers support the integration of foreign-language children and young people through weekly activities at their homes.

  2. 2.

    Driving service: Volunteers use their own car to drive people with limited mobility to a doctor’s appointment, therapist, etc.

  3. 3.

    Community work: Volunteers in communities complement the well-being of older people and strengthen social networks and communities in the locality.

  4. 4.

    Fiduciary service: Volunteers support elderly people with commercial and administrative tasks (e.g., tax returns).

  5. 5.

    Crisis telephone: Volunteers work in shifts to staff a telephone hotline that is available around the clock to help with worries or problems.

  6. 6.

    Visiting service: Volunteers regularly visit and spend time with an older and isolated person.

  7. 7.

    Sponsorship: Volunteers act as sponsors for children from needy families, giving them time and attention and possibly helping them with homework.

3.4.1 The Findings for the Task Characteristics

The volunteers in our study rated the work motivation potential of their activities rather positively (see Fig. 3.2). The greatest motivators are the significance of the activity for other people and the holistic nature of the activity (i.e., involvement in the activity from start to finish). Volunteers, on the other hand, are less likely to experience the possibility of decision-making autonomy, the variety of tasks, and direct feedback on their own performance from the tasks themselves. However, even these values are still considered positive.

Fig. 3.2
figure 2

Task characteristics among seven volunteer projects

The projects differ quite considerably in all task characteristics, except for their significance. There are, for instance, variations in the decision-making autonomy, diversity, and holistic nature of the tasks. It is therefore not surprising that the driving service, which is similar to a free taxi service, displays less decision-making autonomy and variety of tasks. On the other hand, the experienced wholeness of the task—for example, an immobile client is collected from home, driven to a doctor’s appointment and returned home—is very much present. In contrast, the sponsorship and integration projects show great decision-making autonomy and variety: here, children and young people are cared for in a private environment without the organization being directly involved. Consequently, there is a great deal of freedom to make decisions independently and to arrange the tasks in a varied manner. However, these volunteers experience very little holistic approach to their tasks.

3.4.2 Findings on Organizational Characteristics

Overall, the organizational and social framework is positively rated by volunteers (see Fig. 3.3), except when it comes to recognition by NPO employees. It is noticeable that the support provided by the volunteer coordinators is rated as very good, as is the flow of information within the organization and the recognition by the recipients. Respondents are less positive concerning the congruence of values and recognition from the private environment.

Fig. 3.3
figure 3

Organizational characteristics (congruence of values; information flow; support by coordinators; recognition by recipients, NPO employees, and one’s own private sphere)

Projects show the greatest variability in relation to recognition by NPO employees. The only project that scores remarkably well here is the crisis telephone, which is probably due to the fact that this institution is almost exclusively run by volunteers and has very few permanent employees. The sponsorship and integration projects, the visiting service, and the transport service, on the other hand, are conducted in private environments or in an environment that is clearly related to the recipients and therefore probably have very little to do with the organization, such that there are likely to be few encounters with employees.

3.4.3 Findings on the Indicators of Sustained Engagement

In general, the interviewed volunteers express extremely high satisfaction, with more than 90% describing themselves as being very satisfied. Less than 1% are little satisfied with their activities. In comparison, the joy of work is also very high but somewhat wider distributed. Almost half of the volunteers describe themselves as having above-average work enthusiasm, while around a quarter have below-average work enthusiasm. The indicators of sustained engagement focus more on NPOs, and the findings must be put in perspective: Only one in seven respondents identified strongly with their organization, two-thirds expressed a medium level of identification, while just over 20% of volunteers regard the NPOs as only a small part of themselves.

Organizational Change in a Volunteer Fire Department: A Study (Freund & Kals, 2020)

An organizational development process in a German volunteer fire department was accompanied over several years. The affected members were interviewed at various points in time about the planned or implemented organizational changes and their commitment. In parallel, a control group of firefighters who were not affected by the changes was always surveyed (almost 5000 firefighters were involved in this study). The organizational development process included various structural measures to make volunteering in the volunteer fire department more attractive to both existing and potential new members and easier to reconcile with demands from other areas of life.

The ways in which volunteers evaluate the planned changes in the volunteer fire department, and what advantages or disadvantages the reforms entail from their perspective, play a weighted role in their decisions regardless of whether they support or resist these changes. Thus, the perceived appropriateness of the changes to the organization and to the situation in which it finds itself emerged in the study as the strongest predictor of commitment to these changes. The extent to which the committed believe planned reforms are meaningful and appropriate for their organization is thus critical in gaining their support (see Fig. 3.4). However, the issue of whether the reforms entail disadvantages for volunteers themselves—in the sense of additional work and effort—does not play a role. This neither prevents volunteers from advocating for change nor motivates them to resist change.

Fig. 3.4.
figure 4

Influence of volunteers’ judgments on their willingness to accept or resist proposed changes. The numbers “0.17,” “0.32” and “0.44” indicate a strong influence or correlation (beta weights of regression analysis, adapted from Figure 1 in Freund & Kals, 2020)

Thus, volunteers invest their time, the main—and often scarce—resource in volunteer work, without further ado additionally for the further development of the organization, if they assess its purpose as appropriate and meaningful. Here, the nature of classic volunteer work in particular, in which unpaid time and effort are taken on for the good of the community, clearly comes to bear.

Additional time commitment is not a significant barrier to change in volunteer organizations. However, committed volunteers do resist planned organizational change if they perceive it to threaten the organization’s distinctive values. A perceived threat to the values important within the fire department emerged as the most significant predictor of resistance to change and as detrimental to support for change. In the case of the volunteer fire department, comradely, traditional-conservative, and hierarchy-related values were relevant in this regard (see also Yarnal et al., 2004). The characteristic values that are important in each case may, of course, vary across organizations due to the heterogeneity of volunteerism.

Furthermore, it is particularly evident in the context of organizational change that consistent individual and organizational values act as a means of binding volunteers to the organization: The more important it is to volunteers that organizational core values remain intact even in the context of change, the more satisfied they are with their volunteer work and the higher their commitment to the organization. This corresponds to the view of volunteering as a value-based and-motivated activity, and once again indicates that value congruence is central to volunteers’ commitment to an organization.