'Feel good' factor drives volunteers

20:04, Nov 22 2013
Ryan Charmley
MOTIVATED: Christchurch man Ryan Charmley volunteers at a R.A.D. Bikes (Recycle a Dunger) working bee in Gloucester St.

Several post-quake Christchurch initiatives survive on volunteer help. So what motivates people to do unpaid work? ANNA PEARSON reports.

Afree sausage can go a long way. Ask Gap Filler project co-ordinator Richard Sewell.

Sewell recruited a group of 50 people to build the R.A.D Bikes (Recycle a Dunger) community bike shed in Gloucester St. They hammered their thumbs, used power-tools to cut wood to length and ate free sausages over a period of seven weeks.

"We had a family of volunteers that grew during the build. It was mostly repeat offenders," he says.

Gap Filler is one of many post- quake initiatives relying on the good will of volunteers to get jobs done.

It is on top of the needs of pre- existing organisations such as the Christchurch City Mission, the Salvation Army and Presbyterian Support.


Volunteering Canterbury matches volunteers with registered organisations and manager Ruth Gardner says demand has risen.

"We have got a lot more roles available than we had a year ago because they are not being filled. The need for longer-term volunteers is definitely growing. We're needing people to be on boards and committees and undertake roles that require training," she says.

Gardner says there were about 270 volunteer roles available at the end of last month compared to about 170 at the same time last year.

There was a "tremendous" volunteer response to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, but "because people's lives are still so incredibly uncertain there is not quite the same willingness to be committed to a formal organisation".

Filling the gap, then, are post- quake initiatives that often only require short-term volunteers for one-off jobs.

"Everything we do relies on volunteers," says Sewell.

"It's always easy to get people to build stuff, it's harder to get people to maintain things and even harder to get people to deconstruct things," he says.

Sewell also co-ordinates corporate volunteer days, "which more and more companies are doing now".

"People like to do stuff in the city and I think we have got a good reputation for the kind of days that people do with us."

But how do you keep unpaid workers happy? How do you, like Gap Filler, get "kids with tiny arms" to rescue golf balls from under the Pallet Pavilion?

Dr Sanna Malinen, a senior lecturer in management at the University of Canterbury, says volunteers are motivated by "intangible rewards" such as meeting new friends, gaining skills and a "feel good" factor.

"We also know that people's motivations change in time. Volunteer organisations should make an effort to communicate with their volunteers frequently to ensure that their needs are being met," she says.

A lack of communication can negatively influence volunteers' satisfaction, as well as a lack of organisation, recognition and training. Providing helpers "with a realistic preview of the type of work they will be doing" is important.

Malinen says the Volunteer Army Foundation (VAF) "has certainly put volunteering on the map in Canterbury. Just think about the concert event that took place last year".

The foundation, which grew out of the Student Volunteer Army, organised a concert that 8000 people paid for through four hours of volunteer labour.

Plant Gang, which initiates environmental artworks and gestures around post-quake Christchurch, has recruited about 40 volunteers since forming mid- year.

The leader of the guerrilla gardening organisation, Liv Worsnop, says there's a mental "fence" people have to climb before choosing to spend their spare time pulling weeds and sifting through gravel.

"I definitely have had a few people come along who are just like, 'What the hell? What am I doing? It's so hot!' Somewhere along the way I saw that volunteering was doing something bigger than myself. I think people actually have to really choose to engage with something that's not necessarily going to be fun."

Statistics New Zealand figures in 2009 showed a third of New Zealanders did some form of volunteering. And they had "higher levels of life satisfaction" than those who didn't.

But Sewell says it is no good if you "don't feel useful".

If a job is "boring but meaningful", he says, it is important to communicate how it fits into a bigger picture. And there are always free sausages.

Volunteering Canterbury has just launched an online database of roles available at volcan.org.nz. International Volunteer Day is December 5.

The Press