From Compassion to Action: Why Young Dutch Volunteers Choose to Make a Difference in the Disability Sector

by Hester van der Weij, Joelle Klein, Jamilia Walhof, & Leonor Fernandes

4667 words



Literature Review





Appendix A

Appendix B


            This paper analysed the following research question: “What motivates young Dutch adults to start and to continue volunteering within the disabled sector?”. By identifying patterns and themes, the following motivations were deduced: values relating to altruistic/humanitarian concerns, personal gains, career development, social influences, and uncertain motivations. We found participants had expectations of what they would gain from volunteering and certain perceptions of initial barriers to volunteering.

            We suspect that most volunteers likely conduct a cost-benefit analysis; benefits of volunteering outweigh the costs, causing people to take-up volunteering. Nonetheless, it is important to note that those participants with uncertain motivations most probably did not consciously conduct a cost-benefit analysis. Consequences of volunteering included: experiencing positive learning developments, perceiving the volunteering sector in a positive light, or feeling uncertain of the benefits the activity brings them. Subsequently, all participants chose to start or continue volunteering.

Findings Linked to the Literature

Volunteer Function Inventory (VFI)

            Even though this study revolves around qualitative research, the VFI (mainly used in quantitative research) provided valuable insights into participants’ motivations. Upon creating the data structure and visual map, connections to three VFI categories were made: values relating to altruistic/humanitarian concerns, personal gains, and career development. An important critique on the VFI, though, is that it assumes motivation always underlies behaviour. Although it is mostly utilised in quantitative research, participants are asked to select the VFI’s most fitting motivation rather than come up with it themselves. However, our study pointed out that sometimes no clear (conscious) catalyst for behaviour (‘uncertain motivations’ category) exists.

Rational Choice Model

            The rational choice model explains that participants plausibly made a mental cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to start/continue volunteering. Based on this model and the egoism-altruism debate, volunteers would have chosen to volunteer based on predominantly egoistic motives. However, not all human behaviour is explained by cost-benefit analyses; people do not always make such conscious choices. This point is supported by ‘uncertain motivations’ for doing voluntary work. In the case of complete rationality, this category would not have existed. Moreover, our findings showed that despite conducting a cost-benefit analysis, participants’ motivations to continue volunteering were both egoistic and altruistic (not only egoistic, as the rational choice model posits).

Social Learning Theory (SLT)

            The qualitative research field has predominantly neglected the SLT’s applications on volunteering’s motive-framework. However, many codes alluded to this theory: ‘reasons to start volunteering - disabled person in social circle’, ‘reasons to start volunteering - the family volunteers’, ‘reasons to start volunteering - pressured by family/friends’. When applied to volunteer research, the SLT’s scope is limited to the parental transmission model. However, after interpreting this study’s results, some participants were found to have started volunteering due to other people’s influence, besides that of their parents (‘social influences’). For example, a unique finding to the disability sector was that individuals who had a disabled person in their social circle were more likely to volunteer. Nevertheless, a limitation to this finding is that this study’s research field (local, voluntary work with disabled people in the Netherlands) is highly niched, making it harder to apply such findings to other volunteer sectors.

Negative State Relief Model (NSRM)

            Additionally, findings contradicted what the NSRM and attachment theory postulate. Surprisingly, we found participants may experience motivations related to either of these theories throughout their life. For example, we found that Interviewee 9 exhibited motivations explained by the attachment theory early in their volunteer journey, and motivations explained by the NSRM at a later point in time. Even though the attachment theory is less prevalent within this field of research, in comparison with the frequently-used-NSRM, participants commonly exhibited motivations consistent with those explained by attachment theory.

Octagon model

            Within the ‘getting to giving’ dimension in the octagon model, respondents gave high indications of altruistic motives. Although respondents explained they benefited from volunteering, the action of giving felt more prominent. Working with disabled people is a specific occupation, and therefore benefits are not always visible. Furthermore, participants were slightly leaning towards the ‘thought’ rather than the ‘action’ side as they explained how they gained gratitude or self-development from volunteering. Regarding the newness-continuity dimension, some interviewees volunteered for a longer period of time, whilst others were drawn to new organisations. Lastly, on the proximity-distance dimension, our interviewees were on the ‘proximity’ dimension since volunteering increased their social circle, and enabled them to open up to intimate experiences. However, as Yeung (2004) indicated, the multiple dimensions in the model make it quite complex, and since it is applied as a whole, it may not always fit one person.

            Unlike quantitative research, which strictly focuses on working with data and statistics to refute or accept a hypothesis, Boeije (2010) explains how qualitative research revolves around constructivism and interpretivism. It enables researchers to “describe and understand social phenomena” by considering the meaning people give them (p. 11). Using a qualitative approach enabled the discovery of ‘uncertain motivations’ for starting to volunteer and toward being uncertain about what volunteering meant to them. Many (quantitative) studies underpin that it is expected people have motivations as to why they would volunteer. However, as this qualitative research concludes, some participants remain uncertain. Being uncertain is not negative per se since these participants still chose to start and continue to volunteer; this discovery should be further explored.


            Even though the interviewees were Dutch, the majority of the interviews were conducted in English (seven out of ten). During the interviews it became evident that some participants were struggling to formulate their answers in a language different to their mother tongue. This sometimes interfered with the flow of the interview; some answers lacked elaboration. This language barrier may have caused Dutch quotes to be slightly mis-translated or interpreted and subtle tone differences be missed. Furthermore, it has poor ecological validity; the ability to generalise findings to a context outside of the one specified in this research is limited. Findings are applicable to volunteers who work within the local disability sector only, making it harder to extrapolate findings to other contexts outside of local Dutch volunteering. Moreover, the sample and research design led to the interviewing of people that already chose to volunteer. Therefore, this research cannot conclusively explain if there are personality traits or motivations that can prevent or hinder people from starting or continuing to volunteer.