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

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

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

INT202: Qualitative Research through Interviewing

Word Count: 4667


This study explores the motivations of young Dutch volunteers, of whom there is a current deficit in the Netherlands, to start and continue volunteering with people with disabilities. A qualitative approach through interviewing was taken, and data was analysed using multiple coding strategies.

Results showed that personality traits and exposure to volunteering influenced the following motivations: values relating to altruistic/humanitarian concerns, personal gains, social influences, career development, and uncertain motivations. Based on any barriers and possible benefits, participants chose to start/continue volunteering. Findings support parts of social learning theory, volunteer function inventory, attachment theory, rational choice model, and octagon model. In addition to past research’s conclusions, uncertain volunteer motivations were found, which paves the way for future research.

Researching the motivations of young volunteers may encourage the development of revised recruitment strategies; for volunteering organisations to reduce the current Dutch volunteer deficit.
            Volunteering has the power to bridge people together, encourage social inclusion, support marginalised groups, and foster an environment in which civil action is the norm. For the purposes of this study, Snyder and Omoto’s (2008) definition of volunteer work is used: one who helps other individuals who need assistance without there being the expectation of compensation.

            Since 2012, there has been a fall in Dutch volunteer numbers, the biggest plummet being amongst volunteers under the age of 30 (CBS, 2020). Of all volunteering sectors, the disability sector suffers from the largest young-volunteer deficit (Devilee, 2005). Volunteering programmes play an important role in people’s lives; people with disabilities greatly benefit from and rely on the kindness of strangers. As such, it is of great societal relevance to explore why people decide to volunteer (Devilee, 2005). Inquiring into volunteers’ motivations for aiding disabled persons can benefit volunteer recruitment strategies for this sector (Caldron et al., 2017).

            Research on motives is usually approached from a sociological (symbolic) or psychological (functional) perspective. The symbolic approach considers motivations as a collection of cultural understandings, whereas the most-used-in-research functional approach considers motives to be expressions of existing needs and dispositions that fuel individuals’ actions (Clary & Snyder, 1999; Hustinx, Cnaan, & Handy, 2010).
            Although the study of volunteering has produced significant theoretical and conceptual models such as the volunteer function inventory and social learning theory, certain theoretical gaps persist. This study will theoretically and qualitatively explore motivations of young Dutch adults to start and continue to volunteer within the disabled sector. This study will use the ‘expand & elaborate’ research method, using inductive reasoning to expand theories. This paper strives to form an integrated theory of motivational accounts by combining the volunteer function inventory (VFI) approach with two functional approaches - attachment theory and rational-choice model - and with the symbolic social learning theory (SLT) approach.

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.


Basic Set-up of Research Design

            Participants were recruited using a mixture of convenience and snowballing sampling strategies. One of the researchers was a volunteer herself, and used her social media platform to recruit participants (convenience sampling). Based on those who agreed to partake in the study, participants then recruited further subjects they knew (snowball sampling), giving a total of ten participants. 

            All respondents were Dutch nationals between the ages of 18-30 with experience in volunteering with disabled persons. Participants were volunteers at one of six organisations - SailWise, De Hinkelaar, OnlyFriends, Prins Willem Alexander Manege, and another which preferred to stay anonymous. 

Description of coding approach

            Coding – based on Gioia and colleagues’ (2012) methods – enables us to capture concepts relevant to the experience of youth volunteering; based on participants’ terms (1st order coding) and existing scientific literature on the topic of volunteering motivations (2nd order coding). Codes were extracted from relevant interview quotes and placed into a broad category (e.g. “reasons for volunteering - fun”). As we realised our codes were too specific, we saw fit to transition into axial coding to produce more meaningful codes and categories. We identified similarities between open codes and merged them, producing a reorganised dataset without redundant codes. Labelling interview transcripts this way enabled remaining faithful to participants’ terminology (1st order coding based on quotes: “it was fun”) whilst simultaneously allowing us to set a foundation for future exploration of (2nd order) theoretical-level themes (“reasons for volunteering”). 

            As the interviews proceeded, we identified that participants presented other coding categories, such as volunteers’ experiences, learning developments they gathered from their experiences, and reasons for continuing to volunteer. Although these are unrelated to motivations, it is important to code, to remain true to qualitative research. Keeping our duty as researchers to fill a gap in research in mind, we chose to modify the initial research question to explore motivations for starting and continuing to volunteer. As such, the new research question became: “What motivates young Dutch adults to start and to continue volunteering within the disabled sector?”. Changing the research question allowed us to examine and further code for volunteers’ holistic experiences. This encouraged discovery of new, richer concepts rather than affirmation of already-existing ones.

            When examining our role as researchers, we remained reflexive throughout the entirety of the project. We planned for any language barrier issues between the Dutch interviewees and two non-Dutch-speaking researchers by always having at least one Dutch researcher present during the interviews. Given the current pandemic, we also made it easier for participants to join interviews by ensuring an adequate technical set-up (internet stability, Zoom session scheduled, sent invite out to participants).

            Moreover, observational memos were created immediately after each interview, to reflect upon its content whilst our memory was still fresh. For example, during the second interview, the interviewee commented on how they found out about volunteering, how it made them feel etc. After the interview, noted down observations in the moment and captured details that would have otherwise been brushed off.

            This ‘note-taking’ approach fed into theoretical memos, as connections were made between the interviews’ content and the relevant theories. Throughout coding, 46 codes were produced. We observed that many codes related to: reasons to start volunteering, volunteer experiences and expectations, and any barriers or challenges. These initial insights give a sense of direction into where and why volunteers’ motivations may differ and where they may be similar.

            Methodological memos were made after the first four interviews when we got together and shared insights and possible barriers. We concluded that although participants were answering questions we had prepared, they were not elaborating on them to the extent we had hoped, which made our interviews shorter than anticipated. Therefore, we came up with six more open-ended questions. Instead of explicitly asking what motivates them to volunteer, participants were given another chance to give a more genuine and personal answer. Additionally, the order in which questions were posed was modified; we became more flexible with the chronological choice of participant questions. Doing this halfway through the interviews helped fine-tune our research aim and improve our research process.


            This new research question led us to identify many themes and overarching concepts (Appendix 2). Codes were grouped based on similarities (e.g. ‘social skills’, ‘gaining self-knowledge and awareness’, and ‘differences between cultures’ were grouped). After grouping these codes, categories were further connected into groups (e.g. code group mentioned before was labelled with category ‘improvement of soft skills’). Ensued, groups of categories were linked into concepts (e.g. categories of ‘improvement of soft skills’ and ‘improvement of hard skills’ are represented by the concept of a ‘positive learning curve’). This process was applied to every code, which enabled production of the visual map below (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Visual Mapping: Decision-Making Processes Involved With Starting and Continuing to Volunteer

Factors Influencing Volunteering Motivations (a)

            Two factors were found to affect volunteering motivations: personality traits and exposure to volunteering. During our interviews, participants identified personality traits they deemed vital for volunteers to have. Based on what participants described, connections to the ‘Big Five personality traits’ were made. These are five core bidirectional personality traits which have been derived from a comprehensive set of personality traits; they are said to underlie all of human personality (Engler, 2013). Three of these – ‘extraversion’, ‘openness’, and ‘conscientiousness’ – have been identified as central to an ‘ideal’ volunteer. 

            Participants explained what personality traits they perceive to possess, and also how these traits helped them decide to take up volunteering. For instance, Interviewee 7 described the importance of patience, alluding to open and conscientious personality traits (Big Five Personality Traits): “You have to be really patient. Because when you handle someone, [...] who’s disabled, everything is in slow motion.”. Participants mentioned the importance of being talkative, community-oriented and eager to help as a volunteer. These pertain to the ‘extraversion’ dimension of the Big Five, which include someone’s sociability and warmheartedness. Being willing to help others also falls under the ‘agreeableness’ dimension, which encompasses traits like altruism and compliance. Furthermore, participants described traits of the ‘openness’ dimension, like being unbiased and eager to learn. These traits relate to how open-minded and how open to experience one is. Lastly, maturity and patience - relating to the ‘conscientiousness’ dimension - were described as vital for a good volunteer; ‘conscientiousness’ is related to diligence and dutifulness (Engler, 2013). 

            Prior exposure to volunteering was also found to encourage volunteering. For example, having friends and family do voluntary work encouraged participants to model their behaviour and, consequently, continue volunteering themselves: “I started [volunteering] because my mother was volunteering at the organisation SailWise.” (Interviewee 2).

Volunteering Motivations (b)

            Above-mentioned factors consequently shape the following volunteering motivations: values relating to altruistic or humanitarian concerns, personal gains, career development, social influences, and uncertain motivations. 

            The first volunteering motivation is related to participants who start volunteering because they consider themselves to have altruistic values or humanitarian concerns. These participants wanted to help people because it felt like the right thing to do, as Interviewee 5 explained: “I like the feeling of just helping without getting something in return.”. Interviewee 8 agreed by stating: “I want to do something for someone else, without having any expectation to get anything out of it.”. Moreover, for Interviewee 2, this was the main reason to take up volunteering: “I think the main reason [to start volunteering] is to help others.”.

            The second motivation is wanting to maximise (non-career related) ‘personal gains’, such as by making yourself feel good and being able to merge your hobby with helping people: “My biggest motivation was to just spend time with my friends, and if at the same time you could do something good and help other people, that would be a nice bonus.” (Interviewee 9). This motivation category also includes those who use volunteering as a means to make themselves feel better when they are not in the right mind-set (Kassin et al., 2014). This is illustrated by Interviewee 9: “When you are not feeling like yourself, I experienced that I found it really nice that I was able to make other people happy [through volunteering].”.

            Some participants were motivated to volunteer because they saw it as an opportunity to volunteer to enhance one’s career. As Interviewee 1 mentioned “it fits with my study [occupational therapy]. So, I could learn a lot about the kids and use that at school.”. Furthermore, Interviewee 6 explained how volunteering benefits their career: “The experience as a volunteer is also good for my CV to get other jobs.”.

            Codes like having a disabled person in your social circle, being asked/pressured to volunteer, and meeting new people, exemplify how ‘social influences’ can also encourage some participants to take up voluntary work: “When I looked through all the other people that joined the [volunteering organisation], it was because of people around them in the family, or they knew other people that [...] had some health issues. They joined because of them. And it’s the same with my brother and me. My mom and dad got help from other people. And we were like, we can also help other people.” (Interviewee 3).

            The last motivation which was found pertains to those participants who took up volunteering without any specific motivations. Although they did not specify why they started or continued to volunteer, it was still important for us to include this ‘uncertain’ dimension in our visual map. As Interviewee 4 described: “I didn’t care what to do. I didn’t care where to go, as long as it was far away from home”. One of our other participants was just searching for something to do during her gap year: “I was just searching the internet and I wanted to do something with sailing [...] and I found [the volunteer organisation’s] site. And I thought, ‘well, that’s great.’ So just try it.” (Interviewee 7).

Cost-Benefit Analysis (c)

            These motivations mediate the participants’ analysis of what they expect to gain from volunteering and any barriers: “My biggest issue with volunteering is the lack of time, [...] I have to find babysitters for my children, which is not always easy.” (Interviewee 4). Interviewee 1 mentioned: “I felt I didn’t have the time [to take up volunteering]”. 

            Any initial challenges that volunteers may have faced were considered ‘barriers’. These challenges ranged from lack of time to not having a job that supports volunteering. Another barrier to working alongside people with disabilities is that volunteers require training and must be certified to carry out their job. Furthermore, some participants thought they would be unable to perform the job: “I thought: ‘I am not capable of doing this’.” (Interviewee 9).

            However, since all the participants in this study volunteer, they recognised that benefits outweigh the costs of volunteering and hence felt inclined to take-up volunteering (Hustinx et al., 2010). As interviewee 1 said: “you get so much more back than you put in.” Notably, participants with uncertain motivations could not have conducted a conscious cost-benefit analysis.

Consequences of Volunteering (d)

            Lastly, there are several consequences to volunteering that would influence their decision to continue volunteering, such as participants experiencing positive learning developments. Some experienced an improvement in soft skills: “I was very shy in groups. And [volunteering] taught me to socially explore in groups and to stand for my own [and for] what I want instead of what people are expecting of me.” (Interviewee 2). Others saw improvement in hard skills; “practical skills, like getting someone in and out of bed with a certain machine and making a transfer from the wheelchair to the toilet.” (Interviewee 5). 

            Furthermore, participants perceived the volunteering sector in a positive light: “It means so much to participants. And that makes me feel really, really good.” (Interviewee 5). Interviewee 4 answered the question why she continued to volunteer with: “I just really enjoy doing it.”.

            Any of these consequences can reinforce and encourage volunteers to continue on their journey. Based on their actual experience (and no longer just what they expect to gain), they perfect their unconscious volunteering cost-benefit analysis and consequently repeatedly choose to continue. As one interviewee puts it: “because the kids have so much fun, that is more important than the difficulties we have” (Interviewee 1).

            Notwithstanding, there are also volunteers who are uncertain of the benefits this activity brings them, as Interviewee 9 answered to the question of what the work means to them: “I’m not really sure”. Interviewee 3 also indicated that they do not apply the experience from volunteering to their private life: “No. That’s not how I am. It’s nice for a week and maybe the week after I’m still thinking about it, but then it’s back to the life which I’m living.”. Volunteers with uncertain motivations do not follow the same decision loop as those who identify other consequences to volunteering.