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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: Don't Be Afraid to Ask

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert from our academic faculty to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

Recruiting volunteers is one of the most important jobs in most nonprofit organizations. But doing it right? That can be tricky. But, as it turns out, one of the most effective ways to reel them in is also the simplest: asking.In fact, the majority of people volunteer for an organization in response to being personally asked, as opposed to "walking in."

A professor I know stated it beautifully: "I don't want to go to my HOA meeting because they will ask me to do something, and I might say yes." This is exactly why I avoided my daughter's school PTA meetings for months, despite a nagging little voice in my head urging me to go. Well, the voice eventually talked me into it (parental involvement is so important!), and I showed up for a meeting. You know how this story ends: Now, I'm the Treasurer!

In the Arizona Giving and Volunteering Report, we at the Center report the differences in the rate of volunteering across race, gender, educational attainment, and income. Consistent with other research on volunteering, being better educated, having a higher income, and being White non-Hispanic were all factors associated with a higher rate of volunteering. Other research has shown that the elderly are less likely to volunteer, and women are more likely to volunteer. Of course, this begs the question: Why do these factors affect the volunteer rate?

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Researchers are continuing to unravel the multitude of reasons, but one is crystal clear: They're asked more. As Marc A. Musick and John Wilson say in Volunteers: A Social Profile, "One reason, perhaps the only reason, why some factors are associated with volunteering is that they increase the chances of being asked" (293). Being asked more often explains why women, Whites, the educated, home-owners, parents, and younger people are more likely to volunteer (ibid.).

So, many of the social biases we see in volunteering actually occur at the level of asking, not the level of accepting. Remembering this crucial fact can help your recruit (ask!) new volunteers, especially when you're looking outside of your organization's typical network of people. Do you want younger people? Ask them. Older people? Ask them. A volunteer corps that is more racially or ethnically diverse? Ask them. More men? Well, we sure could use more fathers in our PTA — which means we should start asking them. Seems weird, but it would probably work.

Yet there's another reason to ask people to volunteer and not even blink an eye if the "yes" is sheepish or even downright reluctant: Because people learn what makes them happy and fulfilled by experiencing it. This is why children need to ride on fire trucks and dress up for Halloween, and this is why college programs have internships. (If you want to know more, an excellent book that summarizes research on this concept is Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness.)

When it comes to life experiences that provide fulfillment and happiness, service to others is an acquired choice. Most people don't know how it feels to, for example, read to kids at homeless shelter, until they do it. If a friend asks you to volunteer for such a program, you're probably thinking of many things (the drive, other commitments, etc.), but you probably aren't hearing a child reading a word for the first time, and you probably aren't picturing the face of a kid who's excited to choose a book to take home. Only after we've done something are we qualified to decide if it's something we really want to do.

So, go ahead. Ask.

Stephanie La Loggia is the Manager of Knowledge Resources for the ASU Lodestar Center. Some of her past research projects include the Nonprofit Compensation & Benefits Report and Arizona Giving & Volunteering publications. Stephanie teaches undergraduate courses in the Nonprofit Leadership and Management program, and she has also been a youth summer camp director for over 20 years.

^ [1] Volunteers: A Social Profile. Marc A. Musick and John Wilson.
^ [2] What Affects Hispanic Volunteering — Comparing Three Surveys in the United States. Lili Wang, Ph.D.
^ [3] Senior Arizona volunteers — how do they stack up against the rest of the nation? Carlton Yoshioka, Ph.D.
Three Surveys in the United States. Lili Wang, Ph.D.
^ [4] Interested in volunteering to read with kids? Check out UMOM's weekly Read to Me event by clicking here.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog