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

Literature Review

            Definitions of volunteering have permeable boundaries; making studying and understanding volunteering a particularly difficult task. The degree to which an act is considered volunteering tends to be subjective and hard to measure. Nonetheless, researchers provide a framework that defines volunteering, namely: “(1) free will; (2) availability and nature of remuneration; (3) the proximity to the beneficiaries; and (4) a formal agency” (Hustinx et al., 2010, p. 414). In other terms, volunteers must choose to volunteer (i.e. not be forced or coerced), they may not be financially compensated for their work, there should be some distance between volunteer and beneficiaries (i.e. helping a close friend/family is not considered volunteer work), and lastly volunteer opportunities tend to be provided by agencies in somewhat organized/formal fashion.

            After decades of research, social scientists continue to investigate why volunteers spend time and effort to help others (Kassin, Fein, & Markus, 2014; Cornelis, van Hiel, & de Cremer, 2013). In one way, this question is addressed by the altruism-egoism debate. Some researchers suggest that motivations of volunteers stem from urges to increase others’ welfare, or from a wish to contribute to their community. Others propose that seemingly altruistic motivations are actually driven by egoistic concerns for one’s own wellbeing (Cornelis et al., 2013). Most researchers however recognise that both sides of the altruism-egoism debate yield valid arguments and thus overwhelmingly support the notion that motivations stem from both altruistic and egoistic concerns. Although ambivalent, this altruism-egoism hypothesis has become the foundation of many motivational theories of volunteering (Kassin et al., 2014). Building on the altruism-egoism hypothesis, other prominent theories in the study of volunteering have been developed such as the volunteer function inventory, social learning theory and cost-benefit analysis. Other theories such as attachment theory and the qualitative octagon model are less prominent, though important to consider since the former clashes with the volunteer function inventory, and the latter is a qualitative model that is under researched.  

            Clary and colleagues (1998) explain how the volunteer function inventory (VFI) consists of six categories used to study volunteers’ motivations (Einolf & Chambré, 2011). It assumes people volunteer to fulfil psychological and social needs, which can be grouped into certain categories (Same, McBride, Liddelow, Mullan, & Harris, 2020). Categories consist of (1) values, (2) understanding, (3) enhancement, (4) career, (5) social, and (6) protective (Hustinx et al., 2010). The values category explains how motives are a means of expressing one’s humanitarian and altruistic principles. The category of understanding explains one may volunteer to gain abilities, skills and knowledge. Motivations that fall in the enhancement category are ones that help develop and grow the ego. Career motivations include the ones that are a way of improving one’s career prospects. The social category entails motivations as means of fostering and strengthening social bonds. Lastly, the protective category is based on the negative state relief model (NSRM). As Kassin, Fein, and Markus (2014) explain, individuals following this model use volunteering as an opportunity to escape negative emotions they may have experienced (recently).

            Despite its widespread use, the VFI is criticised for being eclectic and lacking a grounded theoretical base. Moreover, its (respondent) bias towards the deductive method offers respondents pre-set answers; as it divides motives into categories, respondents are more likely to choose the socially desirable option (Hustinx et al., 2010; Wilson, 2012).

            On the other hand, attachment theory claims to have high predictive ability; it postulates that individuals will only invest time and energy into helping others once they feel emotionally secure (Wilson, 2012). Although this can often be the case, the NSRM category of the VFI contradicts the attachment theory in this way. Moreover, other theorists such as Olson (2009) argue that volunteers perform a cost-benefit analysis before volunteering. Only once a volunteer pinpoints volunteering’s (material) incentives, and costs are outweighed, will the volunteer partake in the activity (Olson, 2009). For example, one will volunteer only if the benefits of putting volunteering work on their CV outweigh the costs of using personal time. Thus, based on rational-choice rhetoric, motives for volunteering are egoistic. Lee and Brudney (2009) build further on Olson’s theory, stating that volunteering activities decrease when opportunity cost of volunteering increases.

            Finally, social learning theory (SLT) postulates that people learn from their perpetually changing surroundings, moulding their knowledge, beliefs, and actions over time (Thyer & Myers, 1998). Whilst this theory has been ground-breaking across the field of psychology, its application within motive-framework for volunteering has been largely neglected. When SLT is applied to volunteer research, its scope is limited to the parental transmission model: parents taking up volunteer work influence their children to do the same (Bekkers, 2007). However, SLT can also provide insight into our interviewees’ symbolic motives by including friends and other family members’ influence on volunteering.

            Most of the existing research on volunteers’ motives is based on quantitative research (Same et al., 2020). Of the qualitative research that has been conducted, Yeung (2004) notably pinpoints underlying sources of motivations by looking into volunteers’ experience and what it means to them. Yeung conceptualised the different motivations for volunteering in an octagon model with four dimensions of motivational elements: (1) getting to giving, (2) action to thought, (3) proximity to distance, and (4) continuity to newness, which are not separate entities but share an interactive relation (see Figure 1).

            Each of these four arrows include opposing motivational forces: The ‘getting to giving’ arrow represents the altruism-egoism debate spectrum: volunteer motivations vary along a spectrum of volunteering to “get something from it” to “to give something” to others. The “action” to “thought” arrow represents how while some take up volunteering to occupy their free time, others do it because of their values or role models. The ‘thought’ category represents the value categories of the VFI and SLT. The third arrow, ‘proximity’ to ‘distance’ explains how some wish to volunteer to feel like they belong to a group and expand their social network, while others use it as a way to escape certain realities (NSRM model). The last arrow, ‘continuity’ to ‘newness’ stipulates how volunteers who reside with the latter category wish to continue volunteering because of familiarity with the subject matter (alludes to career category of VFI). Volunteers situated closer to the newness side wish to use volunteering as a means to learn and meet new challenges (resembles the VFI’s understanding category).

Figure 1
The Octagon Model

Note. Adapted from Yeung, 2004, p. 32

            This interactive relation captured by the octagon model is an advantage that qualitative research has over quantitative; quantitative researchers try to categorise motives, but they ignore that these exist in interaction with each other (Hustinx et al., 2010). However compared to quantitative studies, few qualitative studies have been performed on volunteers’ motivations (Same et al., 2020). This research seeks to further develop and add to the existing literature by providing an integrated theory that explores the qualitative side of motivations; by delving further into motivations and looking beyond categories and boxes that quantitative research imposes on these motivations.