Paying Volunteers – Purpose & Affiliation

This is a second blog in a series on ‘How to Pay Your Volunteers‘.  The first was an introduction with the idea that organizations pay their volunteers via three ‘currencies’ listed below.  This Blog is a drill down on the first two currencies – purpose and affiliation.

  • Paying Your Volunteers Well: introduction
  • Currency 1, Purpose: being part of something that is bigger than any one person.
  • Currency 2, Affiliation: the feeling of community and the creation of social bonds.
  • Currency 3, Experience: gaining experience or practicing skills from being a volunteer.

This series is a companion to a previous blog entitled “Knowers, Doers and Funders in Volunteer Boards”.

A Blurred Line: Affiliation and Purpose

Affiliation and Purpose are two parts of why people volunteer.  Purpose is the greater good and affiliation is the sense of belonging.  Although listed separately, the distinction is a bit blurred.  The way I think of them though is: Purpose will get a volunteer’s interest in an organization but affiliation will keep them with the organization.


In his book, ‘The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life‘, Jesse Bering goes to great lengths to discuss the concept of the Theory of Mind.  In summary, this theory is that Homo Sapiens’ primary evolutionary advantage is the ability to think like another person  (e.g. “I think Bob is thinking this, therefore I can predict Bob’s behaviour or motivations“).  This in turn gave rise to human-altruism and allowed us to be a highly effective social species.

In other words, the Theory of Mind means that humans seek out purpose and social circumstances.  We are hard-wired to want to belong and more to the point, do right while belonging.  One of the things Bering discusses in his book is that people are more likely to follow social norms if they think others are watching them or are part of a close-knit community.  The inclination to want to contribute to a community can be seen in the StatsCan data of what motivates individuals to volunteer.  According to the most recent (2010) results, 93% of individuals volunteer to make a contribution to the community.

Top reasons to volunteer

Top reasons to volunteer – 2010 Stats Can Report: no. 11-008-X

Organizations can take advantage of this basic human predisposition by clearly articulating the ‘story’ behind the purpose or cause of the organization. While the Society to Improve Chances on Buying a Porsche Frank Potter generally won’t fly (err, donations accepted though); saving wetlands, helping children, aiding seniors or rescuing dogs are likely good causes people will want to volunteer for.

It may seem crass to take advantage of this base human need.  On the other hand, this is the fundamental quid pro quo of the volunteer relationship.  By being a volunteer, a person is fulfilling a deep-seated need to contribute.  By providing these opportunities, telling the story and supplementing it with experience – a volunteer organization can meet and exceed filling that need.


This brings us to the second currency, affiliation. According to the same 2010 Study by Statistics Canada, about two-thirds of all Canadians who volunteer did so with friends, family or people they knew.

Many Canadians become involved in volunteering because people they know are doing it. In 2010,43% of volunteers said they did their volunteer work as part of a group project with friends, neighbours or co-workers; another 25% said they had joined members of their immediate family in their volunteer work. 

This is the affiliation aspect of volunteering.  The Ying to this Yang is  how to get work out of the volunteers beyond just having a ‘social-club’?  I think there are two strategies to this end, focus on the purpose and reward the right behaviour.  Purpose was discussed above, but by focusing on WHY the organization exists will channel people to activities that directly support the activity.

The second part is to then reward the right behaviours, e.g. achieving the fund-raising goal, putting on an event, etc.  In both cases, I think that ‘Telling the Story’ is critical.  Newsletters, FaceBook pages, meeting reports or other forms of communications help to achieve this.

As a final point of affiliation, a bit of swag does not hurt either; something with an event and an organization’s name on it are all examples.  This is a great way to not only identify the volunteers while an event is occurring but also to perpetuate the story after the event.  A good quality shirt with a logo can elicit questions about the event in elevators, around water coolers or even shopping malls.  A stranger asking about an event listed on a t-shirt means the t-shirt wearing volunteer has been paid in affiliation long after the event has ended.

Tailoring Purpose and Affiliation

The challenge volunteer organizations have is tailoring the right amount of Purpose and Affiliation to their population of volunteers.  This balance can be partially be struck by having the conversation with volunteers  about their past and desired future experiences. More on this in the next and future blogs.