Volunteer engagement

This guide is based on the Health Action Process Approach. The Health Action Process Approach is a theory developed to stimulate health behaviour change. It’s developed in order to respond to some of the shortcomings of othe rtheories on behaviour change. Importantly it makes a difference between the motivation phase and the volition phase.


1. The Motivation Phase

Phase 1 is the motivation phase. The question here is to motivate people enough to make them want to act. This is different to motivating people who already want to act and just need to make the last step to actually taking action.

According to most research communicating about the risk of (not) acting makes very little difference. This means that it’s best to keep your global warming doomsday scenario’s to yourself at this point. It’s normal that you’re worried about the state of the planet and that you want to communicate this, but it’s just not very effective at motivating people.

A better motivator are the outcome expectancies. Tell people all the positive things they can expect to happen when taking action. Less money for fossil fuel companies and keeping fossil fuels in the ground are one example of this, but it’s equally important to talk about other things like making like-minded friends who are passionate about the environment, learning new skills or just plain having fun!

The most important factor, however, is people’s perceived task self-eficacy, or in normal language: whether or not people think they can handle what’s asked of them. Research provides us with two key strategies to improve people’s perceived self)efficacy: starting with small steps and providing role models. Provide easy entry-level tasks for people to engage, which don’t need any particular skill, like putting up posters or stickers which have already been printed for them. You can also tell them they’ll get to pair up with people who have more experience for other tasks, like flyering and talking to other people about the campaign. This way people will build more experience and their perceived task self-eficacy will grow.

In short: to move people who don’t yet want to act to people who want to act, communicate clearly about the results of their actions and the ways in which you’ll support them when taking action, making it as easy as possible to get started.


2. The volition phase

Phase 2 is the volition phase. The question here is to get people who already want to ac, to actually do so. We all know good intentions don’t necessarilyAnother im lead to good actions, so what’s needed to bridge this gap?

One aspect which plays an important role is action planning: it’s possible people want to take action and support your campaign, but without a clear plan they won’t move. Offer them a plan with actions, subordinate actions and prximate goals. For example: collect 200 signatures for the petition on Wednesday afternoon, together with an other volunteer. For this the petition needs to be printed and someone needs to bring pens, maybe someone else needs to bring flyers or T-shirts to be more identifiable… Split tasks up and make it clear which task needs to be done by what time.

Another important aspect is coping planning. Once people start acting, they need support to keep going. They need a way to deal with the hurdles that’ll cross their path and to keep incompatible competing intentions at bay (such as the desire to socialize, practice hobbies, …). A realistic and achievable planning can help here: don’t ask too much of people, so it fits in their schedules. You can also try to make your activities as attractive and fun as possible. Don’t make activism seem like a chore, make it fun and competing intentions will stand less of a chance!

The last point is that it remains important to work on self-eficacy. People with self-doubts will more often anticipate failure and quit early. On the other hand people with a high sense of self-eficacy will focus on succeses and deal more easily with obstacles. You can work on this by celebrating succeses, valuing all input and showing your appreciation for everyone’s efforts.

In short: to move people form intending to act to actually taking action, work on strategic planning. Develop a phased action plan with different bite-size steps.


3. Barriers and resources

A final note: sometimes you do your very best to support people, but the circumstances make it difficult anyway. The barriers and resources offered by the social and physical environment can often be the most determining factors. Social networks can play an important role here: friends who don’t support the actions or the activist group ignores the coping process of people who face difficulties or activist burn-out creates a stressful environment that makes it difficult for people to keep going. On the other hand: a group of activist friends who support each other when the going gets tough create an environment that makes it easier to keep going in difficult times.

Maslow’s pyramid can offer a more general insight in what barriers and resources exist that inhibit or support people to take action. First are the physiological needs: people need water, food, clothing, shelter etc. or otherwise they cannot function. It’s well known it’s easier to draw people in if you have (free) food to convince them :).

The second level of needs is ‘safety’. Make sure people feel at ease in your group, try to make it as safe a space as possible. Call out sexism or racism if you see it, even if it’s unintentional. Make sure people have a way to express their grievances about the way the group is working if they feel uncomfortable.

The third level is belonging: people want to feel accepted and part of a group. This includes relationships such as friendhsip, intimacy and family. It’s always a good idea to have your meetings not solely focused on the campaign and what you want to achieve, but to also spend time together informally. You’ll even achieve much more this way!

The fourth level is esteem. All people want to feel respected. It’s important to acknowledge the effort people put into your campaign. Some tasks are very visible, such as talking to the press, or being the representative in a debate. Other jobs are more behind the screens, such as writing the report of a meeting, picking up printed flyers, cooking for the people at a meeting or doing the dishes afterwards. Make sure everyone gets the appreciation they deserve. Also make sure your distribution of tasks isn’t reproducing existing gender stereotypes with mostly men doing the visible high esteem tasks and women doing the invisible labour.

The last level is self-actualization. Everyone wants to grow and realize their full potential. Tap into people’s talents, give them opportunities to learn new things and grow into their roles. Support them where possible and allow them the liberty to act creatively. The more people identify with the work they do, the more they’ll enjoy doing it.