Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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For Love or Money?

What motivates volunteers?

Richard A. Byrne
District Program Director, 4-H Youth Development
and Assistant Professor
University of Minnesota - St. Paul

Faye Caskey
Coordinator of Inservice Education
Home Economics Education
University of Minnesota - St. Paul

Should 4-H volunteer staff pay their own expenses while performing their volunteer tasks? Often, when we're struggling to find a volunteer for a particular task or committee, we think, "If only I had special funds to reimburse volunteers for their mileage, meals, supplies, or child care, THEN I could find someone to do this job!"1

What Agents Think Motivates Volunteers

When a cross-section of 58 county Extension staff from Minnesota responded to a volunteer reimbursement policy survey2, they agreed about why volunteers work with 4-H in their counties. Ninety percent said, "Most volunteers have children who are 4-H members and want to help provide this kind of growing-up experience for them." Eighty-eight percent indicated, "Volunteers enjoy working with children and youth." Eighty-six percent thought volunteers work with 4-H because "4-H is a familycentered program."

Incentives are factors that "make a difference in a volunteer's motivation to work for 4-H." In rating incentives for volunteers, county 4-H staff were nearly unanimous in their choice of the most effective: 95% selected "receiving an expression of appreciation from a 4-H member." Three others were selected by over 70% of the respondents: receiving a note of appreciation from an Extension staff person, being recognized by media, and simply knowing that they did a good job or contributed to something important.

Receiving an award, receiving training to help do the volunteer job, and having expenses paid for a trip or learning experience were rated fifth, sixth, and seventh, respectively.

Do counties reimburse volunteers for out-of-pocket expenses? Some counties do for expenses related to: coach of judging team, teen trainer or chaperone, promotion of 4-H, transportation of 4-Hers and projects to state events, training attendance within counties, or visitation of other clubs.

Reimbursement seemed to be more uniformly provided for out-of-county functions. Most counties pay expenses for people attending training provided by district or state, especially if the person is to repeat the training within the county.

How do Extension staff think volunteer staff would respond to a policy supporting reimbursement? Fifty-eight percent of the staff felt it would make little or no difference if volunteers were reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses, 35% felt reimbursement would increase motivation, and 7% felt volunteers would be offended by having expenses reimbursed.

Minnesota Study

A statewide survey conducted in Minnesota in 19823 combined the responses of 170 4-H volunteer staff participating in the 4-H program at the Minnesota State Fair and 372 volunteer staff selected statewide. This survey included leaders randomly selected at local county levels and volunteers serving on state level advisory and developmental committees. The total of 542 represented all areas of the state and about 3% of the adult volunteers who work with youth through 4-H in Minnesota.

These volunteers were primarily rural: 74% rural farm, 14% small town (under 10,000 population), 7% city (10,000-50,000), and 5% urban or suburban (over 50,000). They were 84% female. They were in their middle years (79% between ages 36-55). Almost 90% were parents: 88% had kids who were members of 4-H. In education: 42% finished college, 8% listed graduate study, 47% were high school graduates. They were community leaders: 84% also volunteered at their churches, 61 % with their school systems, 19% with a political party, 22% with another youthserving agency. For only 10%, 4-H was their only volunteer involvement. They were mostly middle- to upper-middle income families: 50% listed incomes of $16,000-$30,000, 24% listed incomes of $31,000460,000.

These volunteers were "long-term" staff: the average tenure per person responding was 8.4 years. Sixteen percent reported 11-15 years and 14% reported 16 or more years.

What Volunteers Say Motivates Them

Here are the reasons volunteers listed as motivating factors:

  • 88% had children who were 4-H members and wanted to provide this kind of growing-up experience for them.
  • 85% enjoyed working with children and youth.
  • 84% liked this opportunity for achievement and new challenges.
  • 83% liked being with other 4-H people–it's fun.
  • 76% felt that 4-H is a program that strengthened their family.

These volunteers made substantial contributions to 4-H. On average, each person reported driving 427 miles and paying $106 in out-of-pocket expenses a year-while investing 128.2 hours a year. When asked about reimbursement by county or club for these expenses:

  • 18% said reimbursement would increase motivation in volunteers.
  • 71 % said reimbursement would make little or no difference.
  • 11 % said they would refuse it, feeling that volunteers should be willing to pay their own way.

These figures support the fact volunteers aren't motivated by reimbursement, regardless of level of income or length of service.

In all of these categories, their comments were similar. Most volunteers thought that local and county out-of-pocket expenses and mileage can be paid by volunteers, unless costs are high. Guidelines suggested were "if over $25 an event" or "if there is unemployment in the volunteer's family." Many commented that mileage to attend out-of-county training and overnight expenses for statewide meetings would increase their ability to participate, but not their motivation.

Even those who favored reimbursement commented that they wouldn't want reimbursement to jeopardize financial support of the larger county 4-H program. Volunteers seemed very sensitive to the plight of Extension budgets, and placed higher priority on quality programming for youth than on reimbursement for themselves.

What Incentives Matter to Volunteers

If reimbursement makes little or no difference to 71 %, then what incentives are important to them? They identified these factors as making a significant difference to them:

    88% said simply knowing that I have done a good job or made a contribution to something important.
  • 78% listed receiving an expression of appreciation from a 4-H member.
  • 48% said receiving training that helps me do a job well.
  • 34% indicated receiving a note of appreciation from an Extension staff person.
  • 30% felt having expenses paid for a trip or special learning experience.

Being reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses ranked 13th in a field of 14 items. Only 33% of those surveyed kept records and claimed their volunteer expenses as a federal income tax deduction.


How well do we know our volunteers and their priorities? Let's look again at Extension staff responses compared with volunteer staff responses (see Table 1).

Table 1. Comparison of why adults volunteer for 4-H.

1. Have children in 4-H and want to provide growing-up experience for them   88% 90%
2. Enjoy working with children and youth   85 88
3. Opportunity for achievement and new challenges   84 76
4. Like being with other 4-H people--it's fun   83 72
5. 4-H is a family-centered program; it strengthens our family   76 86

Extension staff gave "4-H is a tradition with our family" a rank of 4, while volunteers ranked it 9th in importance. Overall, Extension staff and volunteer staff agreed on most reasons for involvement.

Table 2 shows the volunteers' ranking of the top 5 of 14 responses for incentives.

1. Knowing I have done a good job or made a contribution to something important   88% 71%
2. Receiving an expression of appreciation from a 4-H member   78 95
3. Receiving training that helps me do a job well   48 53
4. Receiving a note of appreciation from Extension staff   34 79
5. Having expenses paid for a trip or special learning experience   30 45

Extension staff rated highly being recognized by media and being presented awards at public events, while volunteers ranked these of little importance.


This study indicates Extension staff is better tuned to motivations of volunteers initially than to their ongoing needs. To maintain a strong cadre of volunteers in a county, it's clear that incentives are needed, but they're not the ones we've been focusing on–the public ones. Extrinsic motivators such as news articles and public awards serve a public relations function, but they're not what these volunteers want.

Volunteer staff have said they value the intrinsic rewards of knowing they're doing a good job. They want training to continue to increase their competence. Personal notes from members and Extension staff let them know they're appreciated as they "provide good growing-up experiences" for kids.

Nearly half the Extension staff who responded felt that volunteer staff should be reimbursed and over one-third felt reimbursement would increase motivation. Currently, the most common reimbursement is by county private funds for expenses related to middle management volunteer roles. Overall, Extension staff felt most volunteer staff are motivated by tradition and family involvement and are most rewarded by expressions of appreciation by 4-H members and staff.

On the whole, this volunteer study indicates that these 4-H volunteers are involved for the sake of their children, because they respect and enjoy the program, and because they feel they're doing a good job in something important. While 1 in 5 feels that reimbursement of costs would increase motivation, the overwhelming majority (82%) will continue to give leadership even if it costs them to "volunteer for 4-H."

Let's once again consider our opening question: Should Extension staff look for funds to reimburse volunteer expenses for local 4-H programs? Clearly, the answer from these volunteers was a collective NO. What they value is appreciation and recognition, not reimbursement.


  1. This article deals with helping volunteers cover the out-of pocket costs of volunteering, that is, reimbursement. It doesn't deal with payment for time spent, that is, wages. Out-of-pocket expenses are defined as "supplies for your club, postage, mileage, photocopying, telephone costs, donations of food, or child care costs while working for 4-H."

  2. Richard Byrne, "Volunteer Reimbursement Policy Survey"(Unpublished paper, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, 1982).

  3. Faye Caskey, "A Study of 4-H Volunteers" (Unpublished paper, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, 1982).