Monday, April 15, 2013

The importance of understanding what motivates staff

By Carol Roome

Motivating people has been a topic of research study since the early 1900s including work by many well known theorists such as Elton Mayo who conducted the Hawthorn Experiments on productivity and Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs Theory, just to name a few.

It has only been in more recent years that researchers have focused their efforts on what motivates individuals to volunteer their time and skills in the improvement of their community and world.

Understanding motivation

Keeping your staff engaged and productive for the long haul requires a basic understanding of what motivates each individual. There are many theories on what motivates people available to us today. Emmeline Widjaja from the Claremont McKenna College wrote her senior thesis paper on Motivation behind Volunteerism in 2010. In her paper she states, “…if volunteer motivations are known, organizations can better attract volunteers by developing persuasive communications that match specific functional motives of individuals or groups.”

“Furthermore," she continued, "volunteers assigned to tasks that match their motives are more likely to continue volunteering…” Discussed in this paper is an overview on what is available on motivating volunteers with an emphasis on functional motivation theory and a multi-dimensional model of volunteer motivation (Widjaja, 2010).

Motivating Staff and Volunteers working in NGOs in the South was prepared for People in Aid by Frontera, an international management and development consulting organization. The purpose of commissioning this report was “high turnover and poor performance” that was common in many other their international locations and they saw a need to develop a “non-financial incentive” program. The report has many useful dos and don’ts and suggestions on improving motivation.

This is a quote from the report that is worth sharing:

“A motivated employee generally remains with the organization for a longer period of time, and by reducing the attrition of staff, we can make sure that the organization’s resources can be dedicated to the program and betterment of the communities.”

-Head of HR, International Development Organization based in Honduras

Other links on motivating volunteers

Nonprofit Volunteers: Top 5 Tips to Keep Them Coming The top 5 tips are: tap into volunteer motives, tell volunteers what you expect, make volunteering convenient, make volunteering fun and show appreciation

How to Motivate Volunteers. According to Thomas McKee “positive feedback is the number one motivator."

Volunteers, Part I: What Makes Them Stay?  and  Volunteers, Part II: Why Do They Leave?
Christine Litch from VolunteerHub says, “Simply put, to reduce turnover, volunteers must be pleased with the environment in which they work and motivated by the tasks to which they are assigned.”
Understanding the difference between paid staff and volunteers

Although there are similarities between what motivates the two categories of employees there are some distinct differences that you should be aware of, as well as some legal differences that is also important to understand. In an article from Nonprofit Risk Management Center titled Employee or Volunteer: What’s the Difference, they offer several risk management tips to understanding those difference and working within the law.

Energize Inc is a website for the leaders of volunteers offering many resources including a Resource Library, Hot Topics and News, Events, Courses and Awards and more. In a January 2010 article Susan Ellis writes Differentiating between Volunteering and Working for Pay. It offers an overview of the distinct differences between the two groups.

Workshops to improve your understanding

A great way to gain knowledge in this sector is to take advantage of the many workshops, conferences and courses they offer on nearly every issue facing the nonprofit organization.

Here is a short list of resources:

Energize Inc offers workshops, conferences and courses globally, however this is the link for North America

Nick Wright Online: “This website provides free access to a range of articles, briefings and blogs by Nick Wright, coach and consultant for leaders, professionals and students.” The link is to his online workshop, Managing Staff and Volunteers.

Free Management Library
offers access to many links on topics ranging from planning to operating to legal and risk considerations.


  1. Hey Carol,
    I love this post. I thought it was very insightful motivational tools to get the staff more involved. I'm a big believer in positive feedback and I was happy to see that this was the number one motivator.

  2. Thank you Tim, I do appreciate positive feedback. I am hoping to hear from a few more classmates this week even if it isn't positive.
    I enjoyed researching this topic, I found so many useful sites and papers. I encourage everyone to take the time to go through some of the links, they are quite interesting and worth the time. Carol

  3. Hi Carol,

    These are all great tips for understanding a person's motivations, but I staff know their own motivations? Do you think simply asking staff what motivates them would be a useful tactic?

  4. Hi Jess,
    I don't think it is that easy. Understanding motivation has been studied for decades, if it was that easy what have they been doing all those years. (haha) I am sure there are people out there who could answer that question but for the most part people don't spend that much time thinking about it. It is up to managers to do research, go to workshops and that the time to understand and know their staff. Many of the articles give us great ideas on general tactics for motivating the masses, but to keep your day to day staff and volunteers motivated it takes time and a bit of your own motivation. Carol


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