Volunteers Want More Than a Heart-Warming Experience, Says Prof

December 20, 2007 - News Release

Volunteering is at the forefront of people's minds during the holiday season, with many even adding it to their list of New Year's resolutions.

But if community agencies want to attract and retain today's volunteer, they need to offer more than just an opportunity to give back, says a University of Guelph researcher.

In a recent study, Prof. Ben Gottlieb investigated what attracts people to start volunteering and what influences them to stay long term at an agency.

"Volunteering is not the casual charitable activity it used to be," said the psychology professor, who worked on the research study with doctoral student Alayna Gillespie. "Although volunteers are still motivated by the desire to help others and give back to the community, they also expect their agency to make optimal use of the resources they bring and invest in their development."

Catering to the needs of volunteers is becoming even more important as the baby-boomer generation retires and becomes part of the available volunteer pool, he added.

"They have higher expectations for volunteering experiences than past cohorts. Good management practices are also very important to baby boomers, so they will expect agencies to deploy them in thoughtful, stimulating and meaningful ways; otherwise, they will leave."

In collaboration with the Ontario Community Support Association, the study focused on volunteers aged 60 and older. This age cohort tends to volunteer the most hours. According to a 2001 Statistics Canada report, 47 per cent of people 60 and older volunteer, providing an individual average of 269 volunteer hours a year.

As part of the study, researchers interviewed volunteers who provided services in the areas of meal delivery, escorted transportation, palliative care and friendly visits to those who are housebound.

The findings showed that volunteers who had a large number of goals for volunteering and who believed their volunteer work used their skills also had the strongest attachment to their agencies and experienced the most personal development, said Gottlieb.

"If an agency can properly utilize their volunteers' individual skills as well as identify volunteers' goals and then ensure they are attaining these goals, there is a greater likelihood the agencies will be able to retain their volunteers in the long term."

In the study, the researchers identified three types of skill sets that older adults bring to their volunteering. These three groups included social skills such as friendliness and compassion; executive and management skills such as leadership, problem solving and time management; and mental and physical skills such as personal energy, attention and concentration, and physical stamina.

Based on these findings, Gottlieb said agencies should provide volunteer opportunities that use these three skill sets and should also sit down regularly with volunteers to discuss whether more can be done to make use of their resources.

In terms of the goals people have for volunteering, participants identified keeping mentally and physically active, making new friends, structuring time and helping others.

Agencies can use these motivating factors to help market themselves to potential volunteers, said Gottlieb. Volunteer managers can also help retain volunteers by reminding them of the many goals they are meeting through their work.

"As older adult volunteers are becoming increasingly vital to community support services, it's important to continue to monitor what motivates them to volunteer and which factors play a role in retaining them," he said. "This research shows agencies have to become a bit more sophisticated and savvy when it comes to satisfying the needs of volunteers and determining how to make the best use of them."

Prof. Ben Gottlieb
Department of Psychology
519-824-4120, Ext. 53513

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982, d.healey@exec.uoguelph.ca

University of Guelph
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Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1