What Open Source Communities Can Learn from Research on Nonprofits

Beth M. Duckles
Photo by Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash

I was talking a new acquaintance who works on open source community development and I briefly mentioned one of the more robust findings in the research on nonprofits:

The most effective way to get volunteers is to personally ask people to volunteer.

Her ears perked up and she asked for more information. I realized that of course she didn’t know the findings from the field. She’s not an organizations scholar who has read a metric ton of research on the nonprofit and voluntary association sector. Hello. I’m the nonprofits geek.

Not to mention that the social sciences aren’t particularly well known for sharing or talking about our findings. We honestly do a pretty crappy job of sharing what we know.

So, I thought I’d write down a few of the insights from research on the nonprofits fields about volunteerism so for folks in open source software (or really anyone interested in creating online community) can know what works.

On Recruiting Volunteers:

  • Being personally asked is one of the most effective ways to get people to volunteer

This a well known and robust finding in the field of nonprofits: people who are personally asked to volunteer are FAR more likely to do so. One study found that those who are asked to volunteer are four times as likely to volunteer as those who are not (Bryant et. al. 2003). The best thing to do is to ask someone personally and in person.

  • Who asks you to volunteer matters

Being asked to volunteer by a friend or someone close to you is more effective than someone you don’t know well.

  • Only some people are usually asked to volunteer

Single people and unemployed people are less likely to be asked. Women, people with social connections, homeowners and frequent churchgoers are more likely to be asked to volunteer (Musick and Wilson 2008).

Asking people to volunteer is relatively easy, but be aware that it’s best to do it in person, one-on-one and to folks you know well.

This is why if you want more volunteers, your existing volunteer base may be a good starting place. Having existing volunteers ask folks they know is a really easy and effective way to find more folks to join in.

This has the side effect of reproducing the kinds of volunteers you already have. If you want to diversify your volunteer pool, an effective way to do that would be to personally connect with and ask folks who are different than your existing pool of volunteers (e.g. if you have a lot of young people, go ask older people).

Retaining volunteers:

  • Connect the Volunteer Work to the Larger Organizational Mission

Make sure that even if the person is doing something boring like handing out fliers or stamping envelopes that the volunteer knows the larger picture about why their work is important. If you’re asking someone to debug some code, WHY does it matter?

Organizations can create a connection between what the volunteer does and the mission through events, workshops or just introductory conversations about why the work matters. This is key to motivation.

  • Make Sure the Work is Matched to the Volunteer’s Skills, Talents and Interest.

Being sure that a person wants to do the work they’re asked to do is important in making sure they want to stick around and keep doing the work. Even if a volunteer is doing something they don’t really enjoy, offering them a chance to do some things that they want to do will encourage them to stick around. Most nonprofits make a point to listen to their volunteers needs and desires around volunteering.

  • Value and Appreciate Volunteers for their Work.

There are a lot of ways to show volunteers that you appreciate them, but the easiest are simultaneously effective and easily overlooked. Saying “Thank you” or “We couldn’t have done this without you” helps the volunteer know they’re a part of the work you’re doing and is essential. It’s not hard, but it’s vital. Larger events like dinners or public recognition are also beneficial, but don’t neglect basic appreciation.

  • Training and Professional Development is a Key way to Retain Volunteers

It’s helpful to help volunteers get skills they need as they’re working for your organization. Particularly if it helps them to feel as though they’re learning and growing from the work they’re doing for you.

  • Treat Volunteers like Valued Partners

Some research suggests that a positive experience volunteering can make a person more likely to donate time or substantial amounts of money in the future. Consider including volunteers as you make decisions about the organization.

  • Know the Value of your Volunteer’s Work

Having a dollar amount on the value of the volunteer work helps your organization know the importance of the volunteer labor. This enables your organization to understand the return you get from investing in supporting, training and growing your volunteer base.

One thing to realize as you look at these findings is that a lot of the things you can do to recruit and retain volunteers may seem really simple. Asking people to volunteer, giving them work they want to do, thanking them for doing their work and recognizing the value of their work doesn’t seem that hard.

Except that thanking people and telling them that they matter can be overlooked because it seems “too easy”.

I promise you, if you do not make people feel like their volunteer work is important or appreciated, they will find other things to do.

Just because these things are simple does not mean that they aren’t important. It’s always worth double checking to see if you’re doing the best you can on these dimensions if you want to keep encouraging folks to volunteer their time and energy to your efforts.

Hope it’s helpful, citations below!


Beth M. Duckles, Ph.D. helps scientists and technologists work with social data. She is a research consultant, writer and ethnographer based in Portland, Oregon. Find her at bethduckles.com

Also by Beth M. Duckles, Ph.D:

Beth M. Duckles

Written by

Research, data, social science and Post Ac life. I also like tea.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade