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Brief 25: Why do People Volunteer

Institutions play an essential role in harnessing contributions to the public good. But what is the relationship between institutional design and social behavior? At a time in the UK when many hope volunteers will supplement state funded activity, this question has never been more essential.

Link to full study

Category: Public Service Provision

Tags: volunteer, non-profit

Date of Publication: Saturday, May 30, 2015

EGAP Researcher: Peter John

Other Authors: University College London, University of Exeter , University of Plymouth , University of Salford , University of Southhampton

Research Question:

What motivates people to contribute to the social good on a voluntary basis? Does hearing about the volunteer actions of others influence people to volunteer themselves?

Preparer: Damaris Colhoun



“Giving Time in Hard Times” brings together social researchers from across the UK around a shared goal: understanding why people volunteer and then applying this knowledge to encourage greater civic participation. Institutions play an essential role in harnessing contributions to the public good. But what is the relationship between institutional design and social behavior? At a time in the UK when many hope volunteers will supplement state funded activity, this question has never been more essential.

Partnering with 12 universities and a variety of community organizations, “Giving Time” researchers have put together three field studies exploring how the sharing of “social information”–what people have done, are doing, or plan to do–encourages others to also offer their time unpaid. In the laboratory context, a great deal of research has been done on this social dilemma. However, field studies present the opportunity to generate real world results, actionable information about tactics that do and do not work that could influence policy makers and help public authorities and voluntary sector organizations maximize volunteer participation.

Research Design:

The “Endorsement Project” explores the effectiveness of email endorsements, specifically whether students are more likely to respond to a politician’s, a peer’s, or a celebrity’s call to action. “Giving Time” researchers composed three emails, each containing an endorsement by one of these three types of advocates. The student bodies of five universities, totaling more than 100,000 students, were then divided into three groups, each of which was sent one of the three endorsements. Seven weeks later, researchers analyzed the response based upon two measures: click-through rates, and impact on training attendance and actual volunteering.

The “Social Information/Feedback Project” explores the effects of personalized feedback on students already committed to volunteering. Over a four week period, a specially created website allowed students from across 12 UK universities to log their volunteer hours and activity. The students were then divided into four groups and given feedback according to their contribution in comparison to the median of the top 10%, the median of the top 20%, the overall group median, or were given no comparison at all (the “control group”). Researchers then tracked the impact of the feedback on these students’ volunteer commitments over a second four week period.

Run in partnership with the County Associations of Local Councils, The “Political Recruitment Project” explores recruitment methods for parish and town councillor candidates. Parish and town councils represent the lowest tier of electoral democracy in England. They are often perceived as unrepresentative demographically and governed by self-recruiting elites who do not face competitive elections. “Giving Time” researchers contacted 978 parish clerks across five UK counties and divided them into two groups: those who’d receive information and training and those who would not. The aim is to determine whether providing information about the benefits of holding competitive elections actually leads to council meeting discussions, the recruitment of additional candidates, and ultimately, the improvement of local representative democracy.

Field Study Analysis:

The “Endorsement Project” has yielded some surprising results. While the emails did not have a discernable impact on registration or actual participation, the overall click-through rate by students was just over 9.4%, an impressive number in comparison to similar endorsement emails sent by non-profits. A clear ask using a virtually costless email can stimulate interest in volunteering. The nature of the endorser, however, did not have a significant impact on click-through rate, except the emails sent by peers, which led to a 0.7% decrease from the overall click-through rate. Researchers assumed going in that a peer network would provide behavioral cues and thus stimulate a sense of civic duty. This proved not to be the case. The endorsement by politicians, in fact, had the most positive impact, leading to greater student attendance at volunteer training.

Results of the  “Social Information/Feedback Project” suggest that students receiving feedback about the volunteer activities of their peers does encourage a greater time commitment. While across all four groups there was a decline in volunteer participation during the second four week period of the study–likely resulting from volunteer fatigue–the students who were compared to the top 10% of the median reduced their hours less than the control group. The same could not be said for the other two groups. Those compared to the median or the top 20% of the median reduced their hours at roughly the same rate as the control group. This suggests that the nature of social information provided is critical to motivating volunteer participation.

The “Political Recruitment Project” is still ongoing. The first round of outcome measure was collected during the first part of 2015 and the final measures will be collected following the June 2015 elections.


“Giving Time in Hard Times” is ongoing, with researchers honing their studies to identify best practices when encouraging volunteer activity. Follow their findings at