Nudge, nudge; wink, wink! What can behavioural science teach us about volunteering?

Flies in the loos?

Every now and again social scientists come up with a concept which transcends academia and captures the popular imagination. A decade ago it was social capital popularised by Robert Putnam and his Bowling Alone thesis. Now it is Nudge, made famous in the best-seller Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

The claim behind the science is straightforward enough: that human beings behave in rational ways and that by making relatively minor tweaks to say product design or communications we can encourage or nudge people to adapt their behaviour.

One celebrated example comes from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, where the insertion of an etched fly on the men’s urinals to, how shall we say, encourage greater accuracy, has resulted in an estimated reduction to cleaning costs of over 20%.

Other policy makers and academics have aimed higher (so to speak) and have looked to see whether nudge techniques can work for charitable giving.

The power of information?

A good example is the Giving Time Project which was undertaken by four universities – UCL, University of Exeter, University of Manchester and the University of Southampton – the outputs of which were discussed recently at a conference in Birmingham.

The focus of the research was whether sharing information about how others have volunteered could help to increase volunteering. Previous research had suggested that such an approach could encourage people to give more money to good causes and to increase civic behaviour in areas such as organ donation, recycling and donating books to charity.

The project involved randomised controlled trials with university students, parish councillors, national trust volunteers and housing association residents. Various forms of social information were shared with the pilot groups, including how individuals compared to their peers in terms of the level of their engagement, and endorsements about the value of volunteering from celebrities and politicians.

And its limitations?

The project has just ended and the results at first glance make disappointing reading. None of the various interventions made any significant difference to volunteering levels, and in some instances were found to be counter-productive. For example the students who were presented with information on how much volunteering their peers were doing actually reduced their engagement rather than increased it.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the study has been worthless. What doesn’t work is itself informative and we should applaud the fact that funding was given towards such a methodologically rigorous piece of research on volunteering.

Volunteering is different

So what can we conclude from the research?

  • That volunteering is different from giving money and therefore the triggers required to encourage people to volunteer are likely to be different from those needed to stimulate more giving.
  • That the key to this difference is time, or more specifically, concern that volunteering will take up too much time. Showing non-volunteers just how much others are doing, rather than acting as an incentive, might serve only to add to this concern.
  • That if true, then this reinforces the wisdom of the approach taken by many volunteer managers; to encourage people to volunteer by offering taster sessions or micro-sized opportunities. In other words playing down the extent of the commitment required, at least in the first instance.
  • That an appeal to altruism might not alone suffice. We know that volunteering is more of an exchange than a gift, so rather than calling through celebrity or peer endorsement for people to give more, might it not be more effective if the nudges were to highlight the personal benefits to be gained from volunteering – meeting friends, learning new skills, enhancing employability?
  • That translating interest into volunteering is not straightforward, as volunteer managers and volunteer centres, are wont to remind us. Whilst the click-through rates for the emails sent to the students were reasonably good, only 3% registered with the volunteering service and less than 1% volunteered in the seven weeks following the receipt of the email.

What next?

People get into volunteering in a variety of ways, as our Pathways through Participation programme demonstrated so powerfully. Perhaps this helps explain why volunteering levels are so notoriously hard to shift.

Since surveys first started on volunteering over 15 years ago the rate of engagement has shifted by only 5% from the highest to the lowest levels. Understanding the complexity of motivation, and how it differs for different groups of people at different stages of their life, seems to me to be key if we are to develop nudges that successfully move the dial on volunteering.

If you are interested in joining the discussion on new developments in volunteering please come to our workshop on social action at our Annual Conference on 18 April 2016.


New adventures in social action

Find out more about different approaches to social action and volunteering in our Annual Conference workshop where you can also see how to make initiatives work in your organisation.

Find out more about NCVO Annual Conference 2016


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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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