Monday, 18 August 2008

Volunteer staff are surprisingly committed

Despite the obvious value of volunteers, managers often have reservations about hiring unpaid staff because of doubts over their commitment. There's a sense that they can leave at any time and there's no paid contract to keep them in line. But a new study turns these ideas upside down, finding that volunteers are actually more committed than their fully paid up colleagues.

Mark van Vuuren and colleagues surveyed hundreds of paid and volunteer workers at a Dutch charity for the blind and partially sighted. Questionnaire items tapped three aspects of organisational commitment, including the employees' emotional commitment ("I feel a strong sense of belonging to my organisation"); their sense of obligation and loyalty ("Even if it were to my advantage, I do not feel it would be right to leave my organisation now"); and what's known as "continuance commitment" - their sense that leaving isn't an option ("I believe that I have too few options to consider leaving this organisation").

It transpires the volunteers were more emotionally committed (especially if they felt there was a close fit between their values and the values of the charity) and also felt more loyalty and obligation to the organisation than did the paid staff. The researchers were particularly surprised at this latter finding, which they said could have to do with the fact the volunteers tended to be older. "Older people are motivated to volunteer because of their wish to fulfil an obligation or commitment to society," they said.

Van Vuuren's team said these results have several implications for managers. For example, it's important for organisations wishing to attract volunteer staff to "communicate how their goals, values and culture are congruent to the individual's beliefs..."

"This study showed that the absence of the 'stick of paid work' does not lead to the situation that volunteers leave their tasks very easily," the researchers continued. "As indicated by their commitment, there seems to be an interdependence, even though volunteers are not paid for their contribution. They may need the organisation as much as the organisation needs them."

van Vuuren, M., de Jong, M., Seydel, E. (2008). Commitment with or without a stick of paid work: Comparison of paid and unpaid workers in a nonprofit organization. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 17(3), 315-326. DOI: 10.1080/13594320701693175

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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