Mark Snyder, McKnight residential Chair in Psychology, directs the center for the study of the individual and society.
NEARLY 100 MILLION AMERICANS, or about 44 percent of adults, volunteer every year. And Minnesotans beat out every other state in the nation in volunteers per capita. Yet studies show that as many as half of volunteers quit within a year.
Two decades ago, when Mark Snyder was beginning his research on the psychology of volunteerism, he kept hearing complaints of constant turnover from heads of nonprofit organizations. People would volunteer, get trained, serve briefly, and quit.
Snyder was intrigued by a fundamental question: Why do people volunteer in the first place? After all, donating time without reward -- with no personal bond of kinship or friendship or urgency of circumstances -- appears to be against our self-interest.
"There seemed to be this interesting puzzle," says Snyder, McKnight Presidential Chair in Psychology and director of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society. "Why are people acting altruistically, in the interest of others? In the end, the conclusion I came to was that was really the wrong way to look at it."
In his 20 years of cutting-edge research, Snyder has found that volunteerism is motivated by five basic factors: personal values, community concern, enhancement of self-esteem, desire for a better understanding of other people, and personal development. And reasons for volunteering range from altruistic to self-serving.
Here's the surprise: the more altruistic volunteers are more apt to become disillusioned and to quit, and those more motivated by self-interest are more likely to persist.
"The people who were the most self-interested -- you could call them selfish -- were the people who stuck with it the longest," Snyder says. "That's the ultimate irony of this -- the most self-centered people are really the greatest altruists. "If you look down the line at who's going to keep on helping, it is those volunteers who derive personal benefits from what they're doing. The key to success is making the experience rewarding by matching up opportunities with motivations. Volunteers need to boost their self esteem, grow and develop, make friends. That's what keeps them coming back."
Snyder's findings can help organizations more effectively recruit and retain volunteers by matching people with opportunities that are in sync with their motivations. Snyder says that matching motivations, expectations, and experiences has a very real payoff: greater satisfaction, less burnout, increased productivity, and greater likelihood of continuing service.
"Where opportunities and motivations line up," he explains, "you find enduring volunteerism."