How Not to Motivate Volunteers

We recently completed a very interesting exchange experience. We took part of an AIESEC program that brought two exchange students to work with us for two months. Since we signed up to participate in the program we had a concern: how could we keep the voluntary interns motivated and make the most of the experience?

Long story short, motivating them was a very complicated task, but it gave us the opportunity to try various approaches – some were effective and some not. The purpose of this text is to share some of what we have learned from experience. I will focus on a specific point: how can we improve our internal motivation strategy.




I – Our Approach to Motivation


We believe in the power of the challenges to keep the team motivated and, among our permanent team, this strategy works very well. The advantage of this approach is that challenges end up generating a kind of “sense of purpose,” people can easily observe that what they do is somehow irreplaceable and valuable. This ultimately improves the self-confidence of the team members and, consequently, the happiness and integration of the team as a whole. Each person knows he has a role, its importance and feels recognized by others. This idea of self-realization through challenges is closely related to the idea that fun can also come from triumphing over adversities (hard fun) and out of learning or self-improvement (serious fun).


Of course, this approach requires caution. In general, all these precautions exist to prevent the challenge from seeming unfair or impossible and, consequently, end up worsening the self-perception of the member within the team. First, in order for us to be able to generate this intrinsic motivation, the tasks given to each person must have clear objectives, ie, a “victory requirement”. Secondly, we have to give people the freedom to choose the methods they want to achieve this “victory,” otherwise we would be reducing the challenges to a series of concatenated “manual” tasks and drawing out all the sense of purpose that would have come along. Finally, it is important that the person has the appropriate resources to meet the challenge.


II – Why our usual approach didn’t work


Our first instinct was to try to apply our standard approach to motivate the exchange students: we gave them a lot of autonomy and freedom, and we decided together tasks for them within the area they studied, providing whatever information they might need.


Even taking all these precautions and receiving them with open arms, these more challenging tasks did not motivate the volunteers, and for the tasks to be carried out, we had to monitor them very closely (when we did not do the taks ourselves).


After many conversations and discussions (between us and the exchange students), we came to a conclusion about why the more challenging tasks did not motivate. Firstly, there were a number of conditions that were very disruptive to the motivation: the exchange students lived far away, they also wanted to enjoy their time as tourists and, as already mentioned, they were volunteers. From the beginning we knew that these difficulties existed, but we did not consider how they affected the interns’ perception of the tasks.


In other words, the exchange students came to work without any kind of payment, so they were not very willing to receive very challenging or demanding tasks. In a way, the challenges seemed “unfair” in comparison with the predisposition and expectations of the exchange students. Of course the magnitude of this effect may vary according to the personality of the person, however it seems to me that – in general – the logic holds.


In addition to the above, the tasks were not the core competency of most of the fixed team. This made the tasks appear to be less relevant and, in a sense, gave the impression that the volunteers were unassisted, regardless of everyone on the team knowing what the outcome should be and being open to help. At the same time, the freedom given turned out to be excessive because it left the exchange students in a dilemma between devoting their mental energies to solving the challenges or using the time to plan outings and other more enjoyable things.


III – The Solution


The first step was to begin to tailor the tasks to the predispositions and expectations of the volunteers, reducing the degree of difficulty / energy required for each task. At the same time, we sought to granulate each challenge thus providing more concrete guidance on the expected outcome. In this sense, we moved from more abstract tasks such as helping to define mission and vision to more specific activities aimed at the company’s main activity such as market research and logo design for a product we are developing.


Finally, we took for ourselves part of the tasks and formed (more clearly) a team dedicated to accomplishing the greater purpose of the tasks that the volunteers received. More specifically, we no longer paralleled certain tasks and delegated others to be completed together by the interns and part of the team. This has the disadvantage of increasing the time for each task, but reinforces the feeling that the volunteers were part of the team and that the tasks performed, although not part of the company’s operations, were fundamental.


IV – What we learnt:


Before properly dealing with what we learnt, it is important to note that the project as a whole has done much for our internal organization and structuring. Aside from that, we came to realize the importance of some other cautions for our approach focused on challenges:


  1. Having the necessary resources to complete the challenge goes beyond simply having the information or equipment, it is important that whoever receives the task feels that, in case of difficulty, he/she can count on who passed the task. The opposite can make the person think that his or her work is not important and, consequently, feel less motivated to do it with quality.
  2. It is important that the difficulty of the challenges is in accordance with the predisposition of the person. This predisposition is affected by many things, particularly by the person’s desire(or lack of) to expend mental energy and the importance of the task in relation to their role in the company. In other words, assigning an inexperienced employee too much responsibility or responsibility incompatible with his job can cause the cost of the error to ultimately discourage even trying to accomplish the task.
  3. When the person is indisposed, there is no amount of motivation or aid that will help. It is important to perceive when the person is having his/her “bad day” or when the person does not “fall in love” with the work and adapt the strategy to deal with these. It is not possible to simply apply the same strategy to all people.

Of course, these conclusions are by no means scientific, let alone exhaust all of the things we have learned during the experience. However they manage to pass on one of the lessons we had that may prove useful to others.

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