Retain volunteers with intrinsically-motivating work

Just because the work is important, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be rewarding.

Civic associations depend upon volunteers to get their work done. But sometimes they trust that the purpose is enough to motivate volunteers – solving climate change is important! reducing poverty! tackling domestic violence! While purpose is motivational, work itself can be designed to be intrinsically motivating: a pleasure to do.

Ruth Wageman and the late Richard Hackman are two academics who’ve done invaluable research around designing work to make it motivating. While their research has found application in the private sector, it’s also important for community organisers who can apply it to make sure that once volunteers come, they keep coming back.

The below information and quotations are drawn from the chapter “Designing work for individuals and for groups” from Perspectives on Behavior in Organizations

How we want volunteers to feel

There are three “critical psychological states” which maximise motivation resulting in better work and higher commitment.

These three states are:

  • Experienced meaningfulness. “The person must experience the work as generally important, valuable, and worthwhile.”
  • Experienced responsibility. The person should feel that they are personally responsible and accountable for the results.
  • Knowledge of results. The individual must understand how well or poorly they are doing in their work.

So if you feel that your work is meaningful, that you are responsible for it, and you know how you are doing – you are loving life or, more accurately, work.

The factors influencing how work feels

The extent to which the above states are achieved depends upon five “core job dimensions”.

These first three contribute to “experienced meaningfulness”:

  • Skill variety. The extent to which the job involves different activities, different talents, and different sorts of talents.
  • Task identity. Is the outcome of the work evident in the final outcome? And how much does the job feel “whole” rather than a disjointed part?
  • Task significance. Does the completion of the job actually matter?

Then these other two contribute to “experienced responsibility” and “knowledge of results”, respectively:

  • Autonomy. Does the job allow freedom and independence in how it is done?
  • Feedback. Does the person get direct and clear information about their work?

If you think about a task or piece of work that you found highly motivating, it probably had a lot of these dimensions. It would have called upon diverse skills, you would have been able to see the outcomes of your work, and that outcome would matter. You’d also have choice about how to do the work, and, as you progressed, know how you were doing.

On the other hand, think about a time that you just found work bloody boring. What was it about it? Maybe it was just the same thing, over and over again (turn out calls!). Maybe it felt like your contribution didn’t contribute to the outcome – or that the outcome itself didn’t matter. Or perhaps you had no choice about how to do the work – or it was unclear if you were doing well.

The relationship between work factors and psychological states.
The relationship between work factors and psychological states.

Principles of enriching jobs

I now have the joy of revealing the five principles to follow to maximise the above five factors, thus making work more motivational by activating the three psychological states. I think each of these deserves a couple of sentences.

Principle 1: Form natural work units. Like sculpting marble, go with the grain of the work to find “natural and meaningful categories”. The different tasks that someone is working on should feel like part of the same work. This contributes to task identity and task significance.

Principle 2: Combining tasks. Put tasks together to form “a new and larger module of work”. This is like the first principle but is more about a coherent sequence or chain of tasks. That is, the same person should do all the sequential steps for the same piece of work. This might mean gathering data, typing data, importing data into a database, then writing an email to the new supporters, then sending it out. Evidently, this contributes to task identity (the data entry makes more sense when the person then emails the supporters) and skill variety (the different steps each recruit different talents).

Principle 3: Establishing relationships with clients. Connecting service providers with clients improves feedback and skill variety, by requiring people to use relational skills. Sometimes, however, it’s not clear if there is a client, or who it is. Here it’s worth asking: who is the person working for? Whose needs are they serving?

Principle 4: Vertical loading. “Vertical loading” is about reducing the distinctions between the “doing” and “managing” parts of the work, allowing workers to act in some capacity as their own manager, and take on responsibility for different tiers of the work. It’s about giving people more control over their own work, improving autonomy.

Principle 5: Opening feedback channels. The best way for workers to learn about their performance is “directly as they do the job” (emphasis in the original), as opposed to intermittently from a third party. This can happen naturally by removing barriers to natural feedback, like facilitating client interactions, or encouraging workers to do their own quality control after executing a task.

Don't worry, you're not missing much.
These principles can help to increase the intrinsic motivation of work.

Wow good organizing is motivational

As I write this now I’m struck by how much organizing is consistent with this principles and thus a much more intrinsically motivational approach to social change.

Organizing is all about forming “natural work units”, “combining tasks”, and “vertical loading”. It’s about entrusting someone with responsibility for a specific outcome and then letting them figure out (while supporting them) how to achieve that outcome. They can figure out the sequence of tasks and work on executing them.

Moreover, because all organizing is relational, the organizer will also be recruiting others to join in the shared purpose. In this sense they are again “vertically loading” as they are taking on management-type responsibilities. I’m not quite sure if the client is the organizer’s leader or follower; in any case an organizer will have relationships with their followers which facilitate feedback, and regular coaching from their leader, again facilitating self-reflection and growth.

If leaders are given distinct areas of responsibility, trusted and supported to meet their responsibilities, and then go about building relationships to achieve their goals, man are they going to be motivated!

Design tasks to be motivational

The most exciting thing about this model is that every campaign task can be made to be more intrinsically motivating.

At the very simplest, each task can be connected to the positive good it will achieve. “Make these calls so that we can raise more money from our trivia night,” “Join our canvass so we can change more minds about refugees.” Simply explaining why a task is valuable increases task significance and work motivation.

But then there’s still more that can be done. Every case is different but they are all the same in the sense that they can be analysed with respect to the five factors discussed above, and then improved with reference to the five principles. Every leader should be applying this analysis to every task to see how its motivating potential can be maximised.

Case study: Canvassing

To illustrate, let me consider how these principles could be applied to the work of doorknocking.

The first two principles suggest that doorknocking will be more motivational if an individual or a team works consistently in the same area and has responsibility for more of the tasks associated with canvassing. So, instead of having different people go to different doorknocks all the time, people could form teams which run events in a particular geographic area (“natural work units”). They could also be responsible for not just the canvass itself, but also recruitment and coordination – seeking commitments, preparing materials, choosing a site, entering their own data (“combining tasks”).

If we give volunteers clear goals (“Knock 250 doors each week until the election”) and give them autonomy in achieving those goals, we are practising “vertical loading”. We are giving them an opportunity to practise leadership, defined by Marshall Ganz as “accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty”. This volunteer leader then has to figure out how they can work to achieve those goals, and which measures will work best in their area. Typically the goal will require them to recruit others to work with them towards the goal, allowing them to form relationships with others which improves feedback. There’s also a natural feedback channel here as clear metrics for success make it easy to directly self-evaluate how performance is going and changing over time.

The act of doorknocking itself can be flavoured with this principles through such simple things as: people training each other, group debriefing, giving people flexibility with a script, or asking doorknockers to tally and review their own data. Each of these helps to improve the dimensions that determine how enriching the work is.

Keep ‘em coming back

Relational commitment is fundamental to organizing and will get people to make commitments that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Maybe it’s also enough to make somebody keep coming back, even if they don’t find the work motivating. But why take the chance?

As organizers, we have it in our hands to design volunteer tasks so that they are intrinsically motivating. This results in higher quality work, higher quality volunteers, higher quality volunteer experience, and higher quality commitment.

Typically organizer’s need to be able to mobilize the time of supporters to combat the mobilized money of opponents. By making work more motivational, we can have more people contributing more time more often. And that is exactly what it takes to win


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