- Song of the blog: Van Morrison – Someone like You
Sometimes things just feel right. Maybe it's our perfect job or the ideal neighborhood we live in. It could be the wonderful circle of friends we run with or the lover we adore. We recognize when the pieces fit together. And, every now and again, we might learn about a volunteer opportunity that sings to us. Maybe, just maybe, in a voice that sounds just like Van Morrison. Perhaps we're able to help our community with a social cause that is near and dear to our hearts. Or, maybe it is a volunteer opportunity where we can use one of our unique skills to help others. The fit between a person's volunteer interests and their actual volunteer position can make all of the difference in the world.
My colleague Mark Snyder and I recently published an article in the scientific journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly examining the importance of fit with one's volunteer position. There's a lot of research on volunteerism out there, including how social factors can influence who volunteers, who tends to be satisfied with their volunteer experience, and why people tend to stick in their volunteer position over time. However, we wanted to explore an idea lacking adequate attention in the current scientific literature -- that important differences exist between types of volunteer positions, and this influences who tends to be satisfied while volunteering.
Tutoring teenagers in an after-school program is not the same as planting trees in a local park, nor is it identical to maintaining an email list for a neighborhood group. Different types of volunteer positions demand distinct skills of their volunteers, they afford diverse experiences, they focus on helping different groups of people, and they might be more interesting and attractive to certain types of people. For example, people higher in empathy might be more interested in volunteering to help recent immigrants than picking up trash in a local park, as we tend to think of empathy as a desire to help humans.
To explore differences between types of volunteer positions, we developed the Volunteer Interest Typology (VIT), which asks people to report their interest in a wide range of volunteer positions (you can take a look at the scale here, and even take it yourself). We actually used the VIT over four studies, with over 1,200 respondents across those studies, to determine how many types of volunteer positions exist, whether certain kinds of people have more interest in certain positions (such as those people higher in empathy), and whether people who are in volunteer positions that match their interests (“matched” volunteers) tend to be more satisfied than people in volunteer positions that don’t match their interests (“non-matched” volunteers).
- Helping nonhuman animals (e.g., walking dogs for a local animal shelter)
- Helping other people meet their immediate needs (“dependency helping”; e.g., serving food at a soup kitchen)
- Helping other people gain new skills (“autonomy helping”; e.g., teaching math to children in an after-school program)
- Helping nonprofits and community organizations with administrative duties (e.g., maintaining a website for a community group)
- Donation-based helping (e.g., donating clothes to a homeless shelter)
- Creating or maintaining built structures (e.g., building a home for a low-income family)
- Helping the natural environment (e.g., cleaning up litter at a local park)
- Political volunteering (e.g., advocating on social media for a cause you care about)
Next, we found that certain types of people reported higher levels of interest in different types of volunteer positions. For example, people higher in empathy tended to have more interest in (1) helping people meet immediate needs (“dependency” helping), (2) donating to help others, and, somewhat surprisingly, (3) helping nonhuman animals. Similarly, when examining people’s volunteer motivations people looking to be a part of their community reported having more interest in (1) helping with the administrative responsibilities of a nonprofit or community group and (2) engaging in political forms of volunteering. We examined a bunch of personality variables and motivations, and consistently found distinct aspects of personality and volunteer motivations linked to interest in different types of positions.
In a separate study we also found that people in a volunteer position that matched their interests (“matched” volunteers) tended to be more satisfied with their position, as compared to people who reported being in a position that did not match their interests (“non-matched” volunteers). And this “matching” effect was quite strong -- the matching effect seemed to be a key component of why volunteers were satisfied with their position.
The results offer some practical guidance for volunteer managers. First, it’s important that managers strive to match potential volunteers to their positions. This may sound like an obvious point, but the data suggest that it’s a particularly important one that managers shouldn’t lose sight of. Second, the VIT can be used to jump-start conversations between volunteer managers and potential volunteers, as it provides a framework that is easy to understand and that can translate the abstract idea of volunteering into concrete examples of types of positions, facilitating dialogue between managers and volunteers.
However, like all social science research, our work suggests additional unanswered questions. Does this matching effect, guided by the VIT, lead to lower volunteer turnover rates over time? What other social beliefs are linked to interest in different types of volunteer positions? Why, exactly, do some people report being involved in volunteer positions they don't have interest in? And, are some kinds of people drawn to working with different groups of people, such as youth, older adults, or recent immigrants?
What do you think?