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What motivates busy business people to volunteer in the community?

Three U of M researchers found that regardless of the reasons for individuals joining a community leadership program, they end up participating in two additional volunteer programs shortly after.

Why do business people, with competing demands on their time, agree to serve as volunteer members on the boards of small nonprofits? What motivates an individual to assume a leadership role that often provides no personal benefit? What is the best way to encourage lasting involvement by business people in community organizations?

“If they come in and make a difference, [volunteers’ motivation] doesn’t really matter,” said Dr. Joyce Bono, professor of human resources and industrial relations at the Carlson School of Management, one of three researchers at the University of Minnesota who looked at those questions.

Programs designed to encourage and develop volunteer community leaders from among local business managers and executives are often criticized as “elitist networking groups” that create little lasting impact in their communities, according to Bono.

She and her two colleagues found that regardless of their reasons for joining a community leadership program, individuals went on to participate in two additional volunteer programs in the year following their leadership program.  “And that’s a good thing from a community stewardship” point of view, Bono said.

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In a paper soon to be published in Leadership Quarterly, titled “Fostering Integrative Community Leadership,” Bono, along with Dr. Mark Snyder and Winny Shen in the Department of Psychology, analyzed surveys of 1,443 volunteer participants in 43 organizations across North America recruited from the Community Leadership Association.

She described volunteer participants’ motives that range from altruistic (such as a desire to help others) to social (for instance, having others feel good about them or providing networking opportunities) to self-interest (such as professional development or increased job security).  

In addition to increased future participation, the researchers found that altruistic-motivated volunteers tend to engage more frequently in volunteer community activities and take on more leadership responsibilities than those who get involved purely for social reasons or self-interest.

Participants in community programs that emphasize team building among the volunteers are more likely to seek out leadership roles in the community than those who participate in programs focused on building community knowledge, the researchers reported.

In rural communities, participants were far more likely to engage in new volunteer community activities than were participants in urban communities, they found, citing the fact that “participants in rural programs were less involved in their communities when they entered the program.”

The researchers concluded that the experience of volunteering did not increase people’s feelings of altruism but did increase their social motivations for volunteering.

They also described how collaboration among government, nonprofit organizations and businesses, called “integrative leadership,” has increased over the past two decades to address  complex problems, such as homelessness, health care, or preservation of the environment, problems in which they all have a stake.

As a result, the researchers pointed to a rise in efforts to increase citizen engagement, such as Leadership St. Paul and Leadership Twin Cities, two Chamber of Commerce-backed organizations, as well as research and teaching centers, including the  University of Minnesota, Center for Integrative Leadership. They also noted the programs Alliance for Sustainable Communities in Annapolis, Md.; Citizens’ Initiative in Sitka, Alaska; Vision for a Greater New Haven in New Haven, Conn; and Families First! in Oklahoma City, Okla.

This phenomenon has also spawned research into how multiple stakeholder organizations work together, but little research has focused on what motivates individual participants until this study, they said.

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How much do Americans volunteer?

French philosopher and author Alexis de Tocqueville pegged us as a nation of joiners and volunteers as far back as 1835. President Barack Obama, like presidents before him, has called on Americans to contribute their time to their communities. And last year, 63 million Americans (PDF), more than one in four, spent some time in volunteer activity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.