How to ensure your charity is harnessing people power

By Rachel Ward 16 June 2016

Volunteers’ Week is a good time to think about whether the sector is doing the best it can to tap into and harness people power. Here I want to focus on how we can get more people involved in volunteering.

Remember that different people volunteer for different reasons

Take off your voluntary-sector-professional hat for a moment and let’s start with a question. Imagine your local council is organising a voluntary litter-pick this weekend. Which of these three ‘asks’ would motivate you to pick up a black sack?

A) ‘Tackle global warming—for the sake of the planet.’

B) ‘Help us keep the borough tidy—so we can achieve our potential.’

C) ‘Do your bit for your street—so we can bring back the local spirit.’

The answer you give says a lot about your motivations and which of the three ‘Values Modes’ you fit into. If ‘A’ speaks to you then you may be a ‘Pioneer’—socially liberal, ethics-driven and concerned with fulfilment. If you’re drawn to ‘B’ then you’re more likely to be a ‘Prospector’—optimistic, individualistic and driven by others’ esteem. And if you answer ‘C’ then you could be a ‘Settler’—conservative, concerned about threats to resources, and driven by identity and local belonging.

The current UK population is roughly a three-way split between these groups. But whichever segment you fall into (you can take the values test here to find out for sure) the thing to remember is that not everyone is like you. Saving the world may get you going as a Pioneer, but to a Prospector or Settler it seems abstract and irrelevant.

Broaden your ‘ask’ to appeal to wider audiences

In general, Pioneers are more likely both to work for charities and to volunteer. Our recent research in Essex found that 34% of Pioneers give up their time—compared to 19% of Prospectors and 16% of Settlers. But the mistake some charities make is they promote volunteering exclusively using the Pioneer lexicon—through calls-to-action which emphasise fulfilment, altruism and social conscience.

This approach is, in part, logical; if Pioneers are the most inclined to volunteer then why not focus on them? But the problem with this is it ignores two significant cohorts (Prospectors and Settlers). These groups may be less likely to volunteer, but they are not opposed in principle. According to our work in Essex, for example, one in three Prospectors and one in four Settlers agree with the statement ‘I don’t volunteer, but I’d like to’. So there’s a danger that potential is going untapped because charities hone in on the Pioneer segment, and end up making lower civic engagement among Settlers and Prospectors into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Think about how people volunteer as well as whether they do

Successfully reaching out to non-Pioneers is partly to do with framing (see pitches ‘B’ and ‘C’ above). But it’s also to do the things you ask people do volunteer to do.

Settlers, for example generally like to do tasks that visibly benefit the neighbourhood, whereas Prospectors prefer to mentor and train. Research we did in Liverpool showed that Prospectors are disproportionately energised by volunteering in education- and skills-based sectors, while Settlers are more motivated by helping the elderly.

As well as feeding into volunteer recruitment strategies, these differences throw up implications for matching would-be volunteers with opportunities. This can help non-profit organisations to find people who will bring the most to the charity—and who will benefit the most for themselves.

As the third sector faces falling budgets and rising demands, values analysis presents a way of going beyond the Pioneer volunteer core. By engaging parts of the values spectrum that often get forgotten, there’s a chance to create a civil society that includes everyone.