6 Steps to Volunteer Happiness
I find it useful to think of involvement with nonprofits as another consumer offer, something a "buyer" can get from our organizations. I say that at the risk of sounding crass, I know. But here’s why it works: Most Americans were born into the greatest consumer society in the history of mankind. Like fish that don’t notice the water they swim in, it’s hard for Americans to see the messages and offers to buy that pervade our daily lives on television, the internet and everywhere we look.
The Cambridge Dictionary describes a consumer society this way: one in which people often buy new goods, especially goods that they do not need, and in which a high value is placed on owning many things.
For many people, the outcome of living in a consumer society is the belief that more stuff equals more happiness. So we look forward to the boost in happiness that the next new car, bigger house or the upgraded-thing-of-the-hour will provide.
But, the upgrade doesn’t make us "happy," at least not for long. When the buzz from the Beamer quickly wears off, we start to focus on the next thing that we think will up our happiness quotient.
We truly believe that some thing has the power to make us happier. I turned to the beloved (husband and Turnkey psych expert Otis Fulton).
"Beloved, give me some big words to use about this dynamic."
He answered, "This happiness-seeking through acquisition of material goods is so common that psychologists have given it a name, the 'hedonic treadmill.' Despite all our efforts to increase our happiness by acquiring stuff, research shows it doesn’t work."
When you live in a consumer society, it’s hard to stop running on that big wheel. The sea of offers and encouragement to buy in which you swim is hard to see. If, however, we are able to break through, as nonprofits, our offer is something entirely different.
Nonprofits offer something that gets us off the hedonic treadmill.
And if we handle those who take our offer correctly, they will stay off the treadmill—at least long enough to contribute their time and energy to our causes, and be measurably happier.
In another blog, Otis and I wrote about Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” in which Pink chronicles research that concludes people find satisfaction—happiness—when the following conditions are present:
- Autonomy—the freedom to act without being micromanaged by others
- Mastery—the opportunity to become competent at something meaningful
- Being part of something bigger—the idea that they contribute to some transcendent good
Unlike new kitchen cabinets and granite countertops, being connected to something bigger than themselves does make people measurably happier. According to the U.S. Corporation for National & Community Service, in 2014, 62 million Americans volunteered 7.9 billion hours for organizations. It estimated the value of this volunteer service to be in the neighborhood of $184 billion. According to Daniel Pink’s research, $184 billion bought those people a whole lot of happiness, the kind that lasts.
Nonprofits can create happiness with opportunities for autonomy, mastery and being part of something bigger. Operationally that means things like:
- Aggressively asking volunteers to do meaningful work (autonomy)
- Truly becoming a volunteer-driven organization (autonomy)
- Recognizing those volunteers for having done that work (mastery)
- Promoting volunteers to ever higher levels of decision-making (mastery)
- Physically bringing volunteers together (part of something bigger)
- Keeping volunteers and donors informed (part of something bigger)
By respecting the trifecta of satisfaction, and thoughtfully designing our interactions and positioning our volunteers and donors using the trifecta, we can increase their happiness and meet our goals. If we do our jobs well, they won’t even notice those laminate countertops.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.