Fall 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Motives and Incentives of Older Adult Volunteers

Volunteer activities give older adults opportunities to share their experience, wisdom, and skills with youth, adults, and other older adults. The long-held notion that older people lack interest and willingness to serve as volunteers has changed. Today, older adults are actively sought to serve as volunteers.

Shirley B. Rouse
4-H Youth Development Specialist
Cooperative Extension Program
North Carolina A&T State University-Greensboro

Barbara Clawson
Human Development and Family Studies
School of Human Environmental Sciences
University of North Carolina-Greensboro

Volunteer activities give older adults opportunities to share their experience, wisdom, and skills with youth, adults, and other older adults. The long-held notion that older people lack interest and willingness to serve as volunteers has changed. Today, older adults are actively sought to serve as volunteers.1

Our aging population can be an especially important resource for providing Extension youth development programs with service from volunteers who have the essential time and skills. In view of the desperate need of young people for relevant and useful learning programs, this resource should be used. The shortage of volunteers to help with youth development activities could be filled by a growing pool of older adults well-suited to fill these roles. But the problem is more complex than numbers alone. The motives, incentives, and perceptions of older volunteers must be a strategic consideration if they're to be recruited for youth work.

Motives and Incentives

According to Atkinson, a person is motivated to behave by the strength of his or her motives, the expectancy of attaining the goal, and perceived incentives. Atkinson further postulates that the three motives affecting behavior are the need for achievement, affiliation, and power. Achievement motives influence one to take pride in accomplishment and a desire for excellence. An affiliation motive influences a person to be most concerned about his or her relationships with others. Power motives are defined as needs indicating a desire for influence and control.2 Achievement, affiliation, and power needs are qualities of motivation that are important determinants of performance and success in work and volunteering.3

Incentives also influence motivation. Research shows tangible rewards, solidarity, and purposiveness are the three principal types of incentives for volunteerism. Solidarity incentives are interpersonal rewards such as fellowship, friendship, prestige, and similar positive outcomes from personal relationships. Purposive incentives are satisfactions resulting from feeling one is a means to some valued end or achieving some goal or purpose. Tangible rewards are goods, services, money, or equivalents, such as transportation and lunch stipends.4

This model of motive-expectancy-incentive theory formed the basis for a study of older adult volunteers in North Carolina. The objective was to identify and describe the demographic characteristics, motives, and incentives of older adults who volunteered in youth development programs versus those who volunteered for adult organizations.


The population consisted of 346 adults age 50 and over residing in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, which includes two of the major cities in the state. A stratified random sampling procedure by type of volunteer, gender, and race produced a sample of 200 older adult volunteers. One hundred of them represented youth development organizations, such as 4-H, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and the Foster Grandparent program, and 100 represented adult organizations, including the habitat, mobile meals, urban ministry, and other similar community service programs.

A questionnaire was developed to measure the motives, incentives, and demographic characteristics of these older adult volunteers. The motives section of the questionnaire was based on the research of Henderson5 and Hiller6 and consisted of 27 statements volunteers responded to using a Likert scale. The internal consistency reliability estimates for this study using Cronback's Alpha procedure were achievement, .79; affiliation, .66; and power, .76.

The incentives section of the questionnaire was developed from definitions used by Smith7 to determine incentives for volunteerism. The 15-item scale included five statements describing each incentive. A five-point scale was used to measure the intensity of preference related to the incentives. The internal consistency reliability estimates for this study using Cronback's Alpha procedure were solidarity, .77; purposive, .75; and tangible, .82. Following development of the questionnaire, the content was examined by two older adult volunteer program specialists, two volunteer coordinators experienced with volunteer management, a specialist in aging, and two youth development specialists to assess content validity. A mail survey was used to collect data, with a response rate of 81%.

Volunteer Profile

Almost three-fourths of the youth development volunteers and 60% of the volunteers for adult organizations who responded were married. The majority (54%) of the youth development respondents were employed and under age 65; the majority (85%) of the adult organization volunteers were retired and over age 65. The youth development organizations had a higher percentage of female volunteers (70%) than male volunteers, whereas the adult organizations had a nearly equal percentage of male (49%) and female (51%) volunteers. Almost all volunteers from both groups were parents. Respondents were asked about their age preferences for volunteer work. Though some older adults in the adult organizations preferred volunteer activities involving adults about their same age, a little over one-third had no preference. Youth development volunteers preferred their voluntary activities involving youth, and less than one-third had no preference.


The volunteers with both youth development and adult organizations were motivated by achievement and affiliation and preferred purposive incentives (see Table 1). Older adult volunteers identified their most important achievement motives as: using skills they perform well, using their time constructively, improving their community, and learning new things. Concern for and helping others, working with other volunteers, and the warmth and friendliness of their volunteer group were important affiliation motives. On the affiliation dimension, 85.5% of youth volunteers agreed that they wanted to "spend time with youth." One-third of the adult organization volunteers agreed with the same statement, 47.5% were neutral, and 18.8% disagreed (see Table 2). Purposive incentives were helping their volunteer organization, receiving satisfaction from the volunteer job, and the feeling involvement is making a difference in their community (see Table 3).

Table 1. Volunteer motives and incentive scores.
Affiliation 31.3% 42.5%
Achievement 41.0 41.3
Power 3.6 1.3
Combinations 24.0 15.1
Purposive 73.5 86.3
Solidarity 6.0 8.8
Tangible 1.2 -
Combinations 19.2 5.1

Table 2. Motives most frequently identified by volunteers.
StatementsAgree Neutral Disagree
Youth Adult Youth Adult Youth Adult
I am a volunteer because I:
Enjoy using skills I perform well. 95.2% 77.5% 4.8% 20.0% - 2.5%
Enjoy learning new things. 87.9 81.8 8.4 15.0 3.6% 3.8
Want to improve my community. 86.7 76.3 10.8 20.0 2.4 3.8
Think it's a constructive use of my leisure time. 85.5 92.6 9.6 6.3 4.8 1.0
Enjoy helping people. 97.5 96.6 1.3 2.4 1.3 -
Enjoy meeting and working with other volunteers. 89.1 82.6 9.6 15.0 1.2 2.5
Enjoy the warmth and friendliness of my group. 88.0 85.1 10.8 12.5 1.2 2.6
Can express my caring and concern for others. 86.7 86.3 10.8 13.8 2.4 -
Want to spend time with youth. 85.5 33.8 12.0 47.5 2.4 18.8

Table 3. Incentives most frequently identified by volunteers.
Youth Adult Youth Adult Youth Adult

How important is it to you that your volunteer work provide the following rewards as incentives:
The opportunity to help my organization. 90.1% 71.3% 8.4% 21.3% 1.2% 7.5%
Receiving satisfaction from the volunteer job. 89.2 85.0 9.6 13.8 1.2 1.3
The chance to help others. 89.1 93.3 9.6 5.0 1.2 1.3
Making a significant contribution to society. 89.1 71.3 9.6 23.8 1.2 5.0
Involvement is making a difference in my community. 88.0 78.7 10.8 18.8 1.2 2.6
Interacting with others. 81.9 70.5 15.7 28.8 2.4 3.8
Training sessions, seminars, or conferences. 74.7 40.0 14.5 43.8 10.8 16.3

Implications for Extension

As Extension positions itself for the future, viewing older adults as potential volunteers is imperative. For older adults interested in productive roles, we must design attractive, meaningful, and satisfying volunteer positions. For example, some states have already started designing meaningful roles for older adults, such as intergen-erational programming. The trend of an aging population should be viewed positively as a new resource to ease the loss of volunteers caused by employment of females and changing family lifestyles.

To deal with the shortage of volunteers in youth development programs, efforts could be made to recruit more men, adults over age 65, and retired adults since this study indicated these groups of people are volunteering. Involving older people will provide youth with additional positive role models and experiential activities. Although some older adults indicated less interest in working with youth, those adults may be possible volunteers for adult Extension programs. The one-third of older adults with no preference for age group of involvement are potential volunteers for youth development programs.

Survey responses indicated that both youth development and adult organization volunteers consider training desirable. Many older adults felt they weren't, however, receiving adequate training. This was especially true of volunteers for adult organizations and is reflected in their evaluation of training as a tangible reward (see Table 3). This suggests that potential volunteers should be assured of adequate training and that Extension should be prepared with flexible training programs for older adults.

Since older adult volunteers were more motivated by achievement and affiliation than by power, it's important that Extension volunteer opportunities meet these needs. This entails providing concrete feedback about task-related performance, allowing volunteers to use skills they perform well, and assigning challenging, exciting, important volunteer positions. Those working to recruit volunteers may want to assign the volunteer position a title. In addition, more affiliation opportunities should be made available to older adults volunteers who want to help others through personal interactions. Informal meetings give volunteers an opportunity to meet and work with other volunteers. Committee appointments help them become a member of a team.

Both youth development and adult organization volunteers preferred purposive incentives. Older adults should be given opportunities to make a significant contribution to society, help to attain a valued goal, or gain the feeling they're contributing to some purpose. Providing updates of accomplishments can help keep volunteers aware of the importance of their contributions. Volunteer coordinators may need to consider a different, more work-oriented management style to help older adults feel a greater sense of achievement and structure in their volunteer positions. Satisfying motives and rewarding older adults with meaningful incentives will be critical in recruiting and retaining older adult volunteers for youth development programs and Extension programs generally.


1. R. Berliner and others, America's Aging: Productive Roles in an Older Society (Washington, D.C.: Academy Press, 1986).

2. J. W. Atkinson and D. Birch, Introduction to Motivation (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1978).

3. M. Maehr and L. Braskamp, The Motivation Factor (Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1986).

4. V. Vroom, Work and Motivation (Malabar, Florida: Robert F. Krieger, 1982).

5. K. Henderson, Motivation and Selected Characteristics of Adult Volunteers in Extension 4-H Youth Programs in Minnesota (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, 1979).

6. J. Hiller, 4-H Volunteer Leader Motivation/Recognition Study (Pullman: Washington State University, Cooperative Extension, 1983).

7. D. Smith, Voluntary Action Research (Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1972).