Six ways to motivate a volunteer community

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Photo by Vic via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

We’ll open here with a short note on what Wikimedia volunteer supporters actually do. In general, we aim at providing the best possible assistance (organizational, financial, emotional, etc.) to the volunteers who spread the idea of free knowledge and contribute to the Wikimedia projects.
As a volunteer supporter one success criteria is that volunteers have more fun while doing things easier, faster, and with better results—ideally on their own initiative and following their own interests, of course. So, how to go about that?

Motives and motivation

Well, as we found out it’s useful to know the difference between motives and motivation – and what this means if you actively try to motivate someone. A person’s motivation is on one side made up of their motives, and on the other side of their general life situation and environment.[1]
As for motives, a distinction is often made between intrinsic motives (you do something because the activity in itself is rewarding to you), and extrinsic motives (you do something because you expect a certain reward or result).[2] In real life, however, the distinction between the two is often less obvious; maybe you’re a public policy student volunteering for Greenpeace because you care deeply about the environment, at the same time you know that volunteering improves your career prospects.

Don’t mess with the motives

While it’s very difficult to influence people’s intrinsic motives (usually people have formed rather solid intrinsic motives in the process of their socialization), extrinsic motives can be more easily influenced. Unfortunately, because intrinsic and extrinsic motives aren’t always neatly separated, there’s a catch: According to the German management theorist Reinhard Sprenger, “motivating destroys motivation”.[3] In short, this means that there’s a risk people might lose interest or find an activity less fun, if rewards are given for something that they would have done anyway. This is also referred to as the overjustification effect.[4]
Therefore, while contests offering a prize can be a good way of generating attention, you should always consider rewards and prizes carefully if what you’re actually hoping for is to support the long-term motivation in your community (see our learning pattern below).
To us, this is an important conclusion: Influencing people’s motives shouldn’t be the goal of volunteer support. Rather, we should help provide the best possible framework for their motivation to thrive.

Image by Veronika Krämer (WMDE)CC BY-SA 4.0

Six ways to influence the volunteering situation

Take a look at our motivation model above. It illustrates the interplay between a person’s situation and their motives.[5] It also shows that there isn’t much you can do to change people’s motives or personal situation, but what you can do is try to make volunteering as easy and interesting as possible.
We’ve identified six practices in our work as volunteer supporters that improve the framework and conditions for volunteering:

  1. Appreciation is crucial to motivation: people need to know that their work is appreciated and valued. We’ve previously written four learning patterns about this, focusing on material, symbolic and interactional forms of appreciation.
    1. Give individual feedback
    2. Gifts, give-aways, and prizes
    3. Let others know
    4. A culture of appreciation
  1. Create an easily accessible overview of ways that volunteers can get support from you. For example, on your website show current projects, the possibilities for support (literature, cost reimbursement, etc.), and how to get in touch.
  1. Learn about the (different) wishes, needs, and expectations of your community. There are of course many ways of doing this. Informal and personal meetings can be important. On a larger scale, at Wikimedia Germany, we collect feedback and suggestions systematically all year round, and at Wikimedia Austria we do a yearly survey.
  1. Remember that motivation almost always changes over time – projects including volunteers should start in the near future, and binding long term commitments are usually not a good idea. Imagine a Wikipedian-in-residence project in a library. The Wikipedian is retired and prefers an open-ended arrangement, which the library is fine with. However, there’s a steady decline in the Wikipedian’s motivation; in the end he hardly shows up. Similarly, it’s not a good idea to plan projects more than a year into the future, as the situation of the volunteers carrying out the project is very likely to have changed by then.
  1. Volunteers are becoming more dynamic, meaning that  “bindings” often seem to have a de-motivating effect. For example, a person contributing as a photographer to Wikimedia Commons was offered a reimbursement for the purchase of post-processing software for one year. He politely declined, stressing the importance of his independence. The Wikipedian-in-residence example above also illustrates the dynamic volunteer – people’s priorities change faster, whether they’re students or retired.
  1. Be flexible and remember that there’s no solution or approach that’ll fit everyone. A simple example from our recent experience is that while one person appreciated a thank you phone call, another felt it was intrusive and would’ve preferred a short email instead. Therefore, consider what channels of communication might be preferred (email, phone, social media, etc.), making arrangements for travel costs according to what suits volunteers best (not everyone has a credit card), and working hours (should you be available in the evening or on weekends?).

Volunteer Supporters Network

A growing number of Wikimedia organizations are employing staff to focus specifically on volunteer support. While the communities usually are large and very differentiated, there’s often just one person functioning as a volunteer supporter. The Volunteer Supporters Network (VSN) is an attempt to pool some knowledge, and strengthen the contact and exchange between Wikimedia volunteer supporters internationally. You can find the full article about motivation on the network’s Meta-Wiki page, and read about our last meet-up.
Veronika Krämer, Volunteer Supporter, Wikimedia Germany (Deutschland)
Raimund Liebert, Community Manager, Wikimedia Austria
Anne Kierkegaard, International Relations Assistant, Wikimedia Germany


  1. The psychologist C. F. Graumann defines motivation as the “reciprocal action between motivated subject and motivating situation” (own translation). Graumann, C. F. (1969): Einführung in die Psychologie, 1. Motivation, p. 59.
  2. Hacket, Anne / Mutz, Gerd (2002): Empirische Befunde zum bürgerschaftlichen Engagement. In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, Band 9, p. 44.
  3. Sprenger, Reinhard K. (2014): Mythos Motivation. Wege aus einer Sackgasse, p. 9.
  4. Frey, Bruno S. / Osterloh, Margit (eds.) (2002): Managing Motivation. Wie sie die neue Motivationsforschung für Ihr Unternehmen nutzen können, p. 28.
  5. The above depiction of motives for voluntary work is a combination of our findings from our session at the 2015 Wikimedia conference and the “volunteer functions” (Clary, E. G., Snyder, M., Ridge, R. D., Copeland, J., Stukas, A. A., Haugen, J., & Meine, P. (1998). Understanding and assessing the motivations of volunteers: A functional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1516-1530 – and accordingly Clary Snyder volunteer function inventory scale (PDF).

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