Volunteerism and national service are an important part of American culture. Americans tend to volunteer at one of the highest rates of any country – for example, from September 2010 to September 2011, over 64.3 million people in the United States volunteered, equal to nearly 27% of the population. Likewise, over 800,000 Americans have served in the national service program of AmeriCorps since 1994, where individuals around the country assist ongoing nonprofit and government efforts by conducting such duties as helping build homes for low-income families, working in after-school programs, or helping new immigrants find and obtain employment. People who serve in AmeriCorps programs tend to serve for one year at a time (though some members serve for shorter durations), receive minimal pay and benefits, and often serve side by side paid employees engaged in similar, but not identical, duties.
From a social science perspective, there is a lot of research out there on why people volunteer, who tends to be satisfied with their volunteer experiences, and who tends to stick around in their volunteer position over time. Significantly less systematic research exists on who tends to be satisfied with their AmeriCorps service, and who uses national service as a platform to become further involved in their communities. The research that does exist has tended to compare people engaged in AmeriCorps service to those not engaged in service, finding, for example, AmeriCorps members tend to be more civically engaged and tend to feel more strongly connected to their community, as compared to those who have not been involved with AmeriCorps service.
But, when we consider those who are already engaged in national service, who is more satisfied during service and who finds additional ways to become further engaged with their communities during their service year? My colleagues and I recently had a paper accepted at the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (early access to the article is available here for subscribers), where we explored these questions in detail. To answer these questions, we collected surveys from 188 AmeriCorps members, asking them to report their beliefs and behaviors in relation to AmeriCorps service at the beginning, middle, and end of their service year.
So who tends to be satisfied with AmeriCorps service? My colleagues and I found a number of important variables linked to satisfaction with service throughout the service year. First, people who were particularly motivated to join their AmeriCorps program tended to be more satisfied, as compared to those who reported less motivation to join – the more members felt driven to serve, the more satisfied they tended to be. However, we found this answer came with additional nuance, as one motivation in particular proved most important for understanding satisfaction.
Now, people reported serving in AmeriCorps for a number of different reasons, such as to try to make a difference, to pick up new skills/experience, and to meet new people. However, the motivation most closely linked to satisfaction was actually joining AmeriCorps to feel better about yourself. Surprising, eh? Now, this gets into a much deeper debate in social psychology and philosophy about whether people generally help others out of a desire to do good (“altruism”) or to better their own situation (“egoism”), but that is outside the scope of this blog post*. Suffice it to say that people who are more driven to join AmeriCorps tend to be more satisfied, and this might be particularly true for those members who decided to join AmeriCorps in part to feel better about themselves and their value to society.
We also asked members to report their actual community involvement and volunteerism beyond AmeriCorps service during their service year, but we had a harder time predicting actual behavior, over and above intentions. But one factor did significantly relate to additional community involvement: feeling like your AmeriCorps position matched your initial motivation for joining AmeriCorps. So, if you joined AmeriCorps to make a difference in your community, and you felt that your position indeed allowed you to make a difference, it was this “matching” that strongly related to your decision to become further involved in your community. This matching effect also held true for those who joined AmeriCorps for social reasons (e.g., to meet people or because service/volunteerism was important to friends and family members), and those who joined AmeriCorps to feel good about themselves. The more those motivations were met by the experiences afforded by their AmeriCorps program, the more members dove further into additional community involvement. The one interesting wrinkle to that general trend was that people who joined AmeriCorps to strengthen their resume and get a foot in the door in the nonprofit sector, and who felt like they met that goal during service, were actually less likely to become further involved in their communities.
So, why should we care about these findings? We invest a lot of money into AmeriCorps, and we have explicit goals that we hope AmeriCorps programs achieve. Some of these goals include wanting to improve local communities, supplementing ongoing nonprofit and government efforts, and helping service recipients. But, AmeriCorps also hopes to produce happy, civically-minded members who will stay involved in their communities for the rest of their lives. The current results suggest that certain individuals might just be more likely to be more satisfied with service or more likely to find others ways to be involved throughout the year. But, and perhaps most importantly, AmeriCorps programs can also try to elicit these types of beliefs (e.g., identifying with the program or certain types of motivations) linked to positive outcomes, such as through workshops or program events. Furthermore, they can be mindful to try to appreciate members’ motivations for serving, and how best to match members' service experiences to their initial motivations.
As I always say, however, the social sciences are complex and additional questions remain. What kinds of trainings, meeting activities, and events might help elicit these beliefs in members, such that they might become more satisfied and involved? What is the best way to facilitate the arranging of service positions that better match members' motivations? And, how does AmeriCorps satisfaction and increased community involvement relate to wider goals, such as actual community improvement, and positive community health and economic outcomes?
What do you think?
* There is a ton of research out there on this topic, and the answer certainly seems to be that both altruistic and egoistic reasons matter.