Volunteer Supporters Network/Motivation

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Motivation is what drives people to do something – in our case, contributing to Wikimedia projects. Without motivation, people would stop volunteering or would not even start to begin with. Usually, volunteers are internally motivated to do what they do, and there is not a lot that can be done if the initial motives for volunteering or contributing are not there. However, it is possible to positively impact (an existing) motivation and help keep it up. This is why it is important for volunteer supporters to understand how motivation works.

What is motivation?[edit]

motivation is the totality of motives and influences which impact a decision or action

Or, to put it in a simplified equation, one could also say:

motivation = motives + influences / situation

The above sentence and equation already illustrate an important point: the differentiation between motives and motivation. In everyday language, most people use the two words synonymously and talk about motivation when they are actually referring to motives or vice versa.

So what is the difference? Motives are basically psychological traits that are acquired during socialization. Much like values, they stay rather constant over longer periods of time and form a relatively stable system. Motivation, on the other hand, describes the readiness to act (according to one’s motives) at a given point in time and can quickly change if certain situational factors change.[1]

To give an example: some people volunteer at an animal shelter, because they feel that helping animals is important. Their (main) motive for volunteering is thus that they genuinely want to do their part in helping animals. Most likely, they will still think or feel that way about animals in two, five or even ten years time. Their motivation, and in consequence their actions, might change though. If for example they move to the other end of town and it suddenly takes them twice as long to get to the shelter as before, the train ticket is a lot more expensive as well, and the shelter does not have flexible enough opening hours for volunteers, all those changes in situation might negatively impact the person’s motivation. They might volunteer a lot less or stop altogether, even though they most likely still think it is important to help animals. In this case, the motives are still the same, but the situation has changed and with it the motivation.

This shows that motivation is something fluent and always changing – it is a current state that is caused by motives and dependant on the situation. If the motives are there, but the situation is not favourable, this will not lead to motivation and thus action.

Where do motives come from?[edit]

intrinsic / extrinsic

As mentioned before, motives are acquired throughout lifelong socialization. Volunteers engage in voluntary work in order to fulfil certain motives. This means that knowing about a volunteer’s needs and motives is very important for volunteer supporters in order to do a good job and know what to do in order to help volunteers stay motivated. Clary and Snyder’s “Volunteer Functions Inventory” gives a good overview of the main motives for volunteering.[2] Also see This is my voice: the motivations of highly active Wikipedians (Wikimania 2012) and the results of Volunteer Supporters Network: Global exchange of experiences and learnings (Wikimedia Conference 2015) about motives for contributing.

When people talk about motives or motivation, they often use the words “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” to refer to the nature or the origin of those motives.

An intrinsic motivation is a motivation that comes from within oneself; in this case, people do something because they find the activity itself rewarding. An example would be an artist who paints because he or she genuinely enjoys the act of painting. Extrinsic motivation on the other hand means that the motivation or the motives come from factors outside the subject, from something external. Extrinsic motivation occurs when we want to do or achieve something in order to get a particular reward or achieve a particular result. This would for example be the case for an artist who paints pictures only to sell them and make money.

These examples already show that intrinsic and extrinsic motives cannot always be clearly separated – what about an artist who really enjoys painting, but also does it in order to make money to pay the bills? In reality, people usually have more than just one motive for doing something – motivation to act in a certain way is often made up of a variety of different motives, and some of them can be intrinsic, some extrinsic.

Why is this important for us as volunteer supporters to know? Ultimately, we ask ourselves whether there is anything we can do to motivate people or to help people stay motivated. This is a question that has been addressed by many social scientists, psychologists and managers when it comes to motivating employees. And there are in fact similarities between motivation in the field of paid work and motivation in the field of voluntary work. The short answer is that it is very difficult to influence people's intrinsic motives. Either people have formed certain intrinsic motives in the process of their socialization, or they have not (yet - keeping in mind that socialization is a lifelong process). But influencing people’s motives should not really be the goal anyway. After all, we do not want to manipulate people, we just want to help provide the best possible framework for their motivation to blossom.

People often say that intrinsic motives are the “better” motives. In general, it is true that intrinsic motives are better for doing tasks such as work or voluntary work, because the intrinsic motives stay constant. If someone is purely extrinsically motivated and only does something to get a certain reward or achieve a certain goal, they will most likely lose interest in the activity itself once the desired result is achieved.

Does that mean that extrinsic motivation is bad and that we should not try to extrinsically motivate volunteers? Not necessarily… It can for example happen that extrinsic rewards (such as prizes) get people engaged in something they initially had no interest in, but then discover that they actually enjoy the task/activity and start developing an interest in it. An example for this could be someone who participates in Wiki Loves Monuments for the first time because he or she sees that there are great prizes to be won. This person might then find out that they really enjoy hunting for photos that are not on Wikipedia yet and are thrilled by the thought that their pictures can be used in Wikipedia articles. As a result, uploading pictures to Commons and embedding them in Wikipedia might turn into a new hobby of theirs.

Extrinsic rewards can also be used to help people gain more knowledge in a certain field or learn new skills. With those new skills or knowledge, people might then actually become more intrinsically motivated to continue engaging in an activity, because it is suddenly much easier and more fun. An example might be a beginners Wikidata workshop for Wikipedians, which is interesting to people because they get to spend a weekend somewhere with a nice framework and social program (extrinsic rewards). Once they have learned more about Wikidata and know how to edit it though, they might actually appreciate it more and keep contributing, because they now understand more about its benefits and know how to use it.

Also, external rewards can be a good way of showing appreciation. If someone wins a prize for something they have done, they know that their efforts or their work achieved a certain standard that is seen as valuable by others. This type of feedback is not limited to extrinsic rewards or appreciation though - telling someone face to face or sending a thank-you-card for something they did can have the exact same appreciating effect.

motivating destroys motivation

As the heading indicates, there is a danger to extrinsic motivation. The German management theorist Reinhard Sprenger quite drastically says that “motivating destroys motivation” (own translation)[3]. What he refers to is something known as the overjustification effect. It can occur that people who have internal motives for doing something loose their internal motivation if they get external rewards for that same activity. The chances of this happening are particularly high if rewards are given for something that is seen as a simple or ordinary task, something that people would usually do anyway. Receiving rewards for something that is an everyday hobby to people can also cause the activity to be perceived more like work and less like a fun pastime of one’s choice. All this does not have to lead to a decrease in internal motivation, but there are quite a few scientific studies about motives and motivation where the overjustification effect has been observed.

Summing up, it can be said that extrinsic motivators should be avoided for activities that people already find intrinsically rewarding. Extrinsic motivators or rewards can be useful in some cases, but it should always be kept in mind that once established, people will expect to get the same rewards or prizes in this context in the future as well.

Sometimes, prizes also have a positive effect in the sense that they can make a person feel appreciated - the actual (material) reward does not matter that much, but the message linked to it shows people that what they do is valued. Similarly, giving praise (a form of appreciation) has been proven to have positive effects on internal motivation.

For more information on the topic of appreciation, see #Appreciation.

What influences motivation?[edit]

motivation = motives + motivating situation

If there is not a lot that can be done about intrinsic motives, and extrinsic motivation is such a delicate topic, what can we as volunteer supporters actually do to help our volunteers stay motivated? The answer lies in our initial definition of motivation, as shown in the above equation: we have very limited influence on the motives, but we can impact the situation. So in order to have a positive effect on motivation, it is necessary to positively shape the surrounding situation.

The situation comprises literally everything – on the one hand, the personal situation: work, health, financial situation, social situation, friendships, family etc. This is the part of the situation that we will most likely not be able to influence. If a volunteer who was previously a student gets a full time job and a new partner, those changes in the personal situation will lead to them having less time for other things in general, thus also less time to contribute to Wikimedia projects.

On the other hand, there is the situation directly linked to the volunteer work, including all factors that shape the experience of volunteering. What we can do here is to provide the best possible framework for volunteering. One aspect of this is to make volunteering / contributing as inclusive as possible – inclusive in all aspects, meaning that even due to personal factors that would normally restrict someone (limited health / mobility, finances, time / work hours etc.), we offer ways for volunteers to participate nonetheless. As volunteer supporters, we should constantly work on developing the conditions for volunteering in Wikimedia projects and providing the best possible framework.

Some of the aspects this includes are shown in the picture above:

  • participation: give volunteers the possibility to participate not only in projects or events, but also in decision making and shaping the chapter’s / user group’s work (studies in a work environment have shown that higher degrees of participation correlate with a higher work motivation).
  • flexibility: allow volunteers the flexibility they need in order to best combine their personal situation and their volunteer activities (when, how, and where they do a certain task or activity or can get support from you). This will also include having to be flexible yourself and being prepared to “jump in” to help in certain cases.
  • positive work environment: do your best to make volunteering as pleasant as possible in terms of interpersonal relationships and atmosphere (online, offline and in everyday communication).
  • no / few hurdles: make it easy for volunteers to contribute (as little bureaucracy as possible, not more rules or regulations than necessary, as little specific prerequisites for volunteering as possible).
  • access to tools, skills and know-how: provide volunteers with the opportunity to gain any skills or knowledge or get any tools they might need in order to best do their volunteer activities.
  • low financial cost: the lower the cost associated with an activity, the more people will be able / willing to take part. If possible, cover or reimburse volunteers for any costs associated with their volunteer work.
  • autonomy (but also support to rely on): allow people to shape their volunteer work the way they would like to, let them make their own decisions, don’t always “know everything better” and let them work independently. At the same time, if your support is wished for, be there to assist them.
  • interesting tasks and roles: this is an often mentioned aspect responsible for increasing motivation in the workplace and is also true for volunteer work - make sure to communicate to people the various options for contributing. If tasks are divided up between paid staff and volunteers, be careful to find a good balance.
  • clear communication and expectation management: this is important in all aspects of life, and no less in volunteer support. Communicate with volunteers and openly talk about expectations, wishes and challenges on both sides.
  • appreciation and recognition: this plays a central role in creating a framework favourable for volunteering and thus keeping people’s motivation up.

Our role in motivation[edit]

Communicate an easy accessible framework of possibilities[edit]

What we should try to do is to present a framework of possibilities. This means that we offer different schemes of support. Thereby we create a framework which can lead to motivation for many different activities and projects.

It is helpful to reach your communities where they are, directly in the Wikimedia projects. In the German-language Wikipedia there is a portal called Wikipedia:Förderung. Förderung means support but also boost or sponsorship. This portal is used by three chapters – Wikimedia CH, Wikimedia Deutschland and Wikimedia Österreich – as a sort of embassy for their volunteer support activities.

In order to be easy accessible, you should keep your support as less bureaucratic as possible, offer different contact channels including phone numbers and keep the information about support up-to-date.

Learn about wishes, needs and expectations[edit]

It is necessary to know about some basic wishes, needs and expectations of your community members if you want to influence their motivation to stay in the community. You should try to keep informed about current online discussions in your Wikipedia language version, by reading them yourself and by talking to Wikipedians who can give you a summary.

It is important to understand the cultural language. Many German-speaking Wikipedians are opposed to any initiatives dealing with community health. This is because if you translate community health into German it sounds like a term the Nazis used. The Nazis used to say that the community of the German people is like a human body which should be healthy and therefore unhealthy elements needed to be excluded. Many German-speaking Wikipedians would be highly motivated to support community health activities just as long as they are not connected to a concept called community health. So we know we have to be careful and thoughtful with understanding language and with using language.

On a practical level, it is very useful to build a relationship of trust by talking personally to volunteers, and not in a formal meeting but in a more private, informal setting. Wikimedia Österreich conducts an anonymous community survey every year where people can let personal relationships with the chapter aside when uttering their wishes, needs and expectations. And in Germany, they don’t do one survey every year but systematically collect data and feedback about volunteer support and its value for community members. This is done with an automated system which sends a very short e-mail surveys to everyone who made use of one the volunteer support programs.

Expect changes in motivation[edit]

Imagine a Wikipedian whose motivation to contribute to Wikipedia was his fight against right-wing student associations. He thought that these student associations were presenting themselves in Wikipedia with false claims and his mission was to check the notability and the sources in articles about these organizations. The Wikipedian did this over several years. In recent times he became more and more interested in quality photography of mountain railways and that’s his passion today, which has nothing to do with his former motivation and in which he achieves remarkable results.

It’s not easy to predict what motivates Wikimedians over a longer timespan, let’s say one or two years. This is why you should be careful with projects by volunteers which don’t start in the near future. There is an annual conference in the German-speaking countries called WikiCon. A WikiCon is organized by a local team of volunteers and is supported by the Wikimedia chapters. You cannot plan now where the WikiCon in two years will be because even if there is a team of volunteers wanting to do it, their initial motivation can be totally different in two years.

The dynamic volunteer[edit]

At least in Central Europe, we are witnessing a change in volunteering in general. Volunteers are becoming more dynamic. It is not always motivating to force them into a long-term commitment and they are less willing to have any bindings.

Imagine a user who contributes mostly as a photographer for Wikimedia Commons. He does not have a lot of money and as a photographer one is supposed to invest some money. You offer him a scholarship for a post-processing software for a year. He buys himself the software but he does not send you any invoice. After a while you remind him that you need the invoice for the software so that you can reimburse the money. He answers, very friendly, and says that he managed to pay for the software himself and he doesn’t want any money back because it’s more important for him to stay independent. In this case independence is a motivating factor. You should not destroy it. It is not our mission as Wikimedia organizations to involve the whole community into our business.

Image a Wikipedian-in-residence project in a library. The Wikipedian-in-residence is a retired man, he has time and he does not want his residency to be limited for half a year or one year but for as long as he is willing to do it. The library is fine with this arrangement. However, later on it is extremely difficult to make a clear cut when the Wikipedian loses his motivation. It is a slow decline, sometimes he does not show up for several months and on the other hand he says that he might get motivated again.This is not the case. A long-term commitment without a defined finish date is not a good idea.

The flexible volunteer supporter[edit]

The social environment and the life situation of a volunteer have an impact on his or her motivation to contribute. This means you need to find ways of commitment which match with the current life of the individual volunteer.

Many Wikimedians have jobs in the daytime which means that as a volunteer supporter you become used to having meetings and calls in the evening and on weekends. Another example of flexibility concerns money. In some countries it is not common for everyone to have a credit card. It is not motivating to participate in Wikimania if the first thing a volunteer needs to do is to find someone with a credit card in order to pay for the flight, the hotel or the registration fee. In this case you can help.

Another thing is communication channels. This really depends on the individual volunteer. Some people prefer to communicate with you on their discussion pages because they believe in transparency, they want to keep it public. Others prefer private communication, for example by e-mail, phone or at personal meetings.

Even then you can get different feedback - for one Wikipedian e-mails are stressful for her because she doesn’t want to make formal mistakes by using only written conversation. She prefers phone calls. Another Wikipedian writes you an e-mail and asks you if you could contact a school which has troubles with using Wikipedia. Perhaps you think that it’s great that this Wikipedian cares and you shouldn’t just write an email saying "ok and thank you", instead it would be much more personal and caring if you called the Wikipedian. So you call him and say thank you and that you are going to contact the school. Some weeks later you hear that he complained about you that it was strange that you called him instead of just writing a short e-mail. Flexibility means to be prepared that there’s not one solution for all situations.


There is a connection between motivation and appreciation. Veronika Krämer (WMDE), Raimund Liebert (WMAT) and Muriel Staub (WMCH) created four learning patterns about appreciation of volunteer work:

  • Give individual feedback, from person to person.
  • Gifts, give-aways and prizes are valuable signs of appreciation. However it’s important to keep their symbolic nature in order to be effective concerning community motivation. This means they shouldn’t be too expensive and should always be connected to Wikimedia projects. For example, the main prize at the Writing Competition in the German-language Wikipedia was a trip to Wikimania and not just any journey without a clear connection to Wikipedia.
  • Let others know: Inform third parties outside of Wikimedia about the achievements of individual users.
  • A culture of appreciation: If you showed your appreciation towards a community member and other people in your organization did the opposite, it wouldn’t have a positive effect on motivation.


  1. Graumann, C. F. (1969). Einführung in die Psychologie, 1. Motivation (in German). Bern. p. 59. 
  2. Clary, E. G.; Snyder, M.; Ridge, R. D.; Copeland, J.; Stukas, A. A.; Haugen, J.; Meine, P. (1998). "Understanding and assessing the motivations of volunteers: A functional approach". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 1516–1530.  and accordingly Clary Snyder volunteer function inventory scale (PDF)
  3. Sprenger, Reinhard K. (2014). Mythos Motivation. Wege aus der Sackgasse (in German). Frankfurt am Main. p. 9.