Using Social Media and Gamification to Support Volunteerism

Reward Volunteers is a Facebook app that encourages youth to share their volunteer activities and gives them a chance to win prizes.  Although this gamification has been criticized as going against the “spirit of volunteerism,” the rewards are not guaranteed.  Perhaps the most important thing that this app accomplishes is a greater awareness of volunteerism.

via Nilima Abrams @nilimaabrams,

Though the primary motivation of most volunteers is helping others, not personal recognition, they are less likely to quit if they are thanked for their service (New York Cares 2009). With US non-profits losing $30 billion annually due to high volunteer attrition (New York Cares 2009), why are there not more programs to thank and reward volunteers? As co-creator of Reward Volunteers, a mobile app that attempts to do just that, I realized that part of the problem lays with prevalent societal attitudes that value volunteers’ self-sacrifice and the appearance of humility.

In designing Reward Volunteers we used a variety of techniques to safeguard against volunteers appearing “selfish,” while still trying to give them sufficient support and recognition. Basically, Reward Volunteers allows volunteers to log and share their service hours at any organization — the more activity, the more chances to win cash and prizes, both for themselves and the organizations they serve. Though the program has had a positive reception, we received a complaint, suggesting that it would detract from the “spirit of volunteerism,” and teach youth that volunteers should expect material gain. As we near the culmination of the first Reward Volunteers campaign, I’ll reflect on these views, in the context of my experience with using “gamification” techniques to support volunteers.

Is the concern with the “spirit of volunteerism” valid? I believe it stems from a sincere desire to avoid skewed motivations, which could result in poor quality services delivered. The concern is that if a tutor, for example, were ONLY interested in a reward, rather than the child’s education, he probably would not be very effective — but how is that different from a paid teacher’s responsibility? Anyone in a helping profession, or who works for social good at non-profits, is expected to care about their work, though they are still compensated. While 75% of Americans participate in loyalty programs, which further incentivize spending, volunteers are not given such options or incentivizes (CIO). If the rewards were extremely large and guaranteed, then we would be concerned with the “spirit of volunteerism” being overshadowed for material gain, whereas providing a bit of excitement and mystery can support volunteers without adulterating their motivations.

According to the bureau of labor statistics, youth (people in their 20′s) are the least likely age group to volunteer (2012). Though many people may support the idea of providing tools for volunteers, the fact remains that, despite 500,000 iPhone apps, fewer than 10 support volunteers — representing a void in providing youth the social and technological tools that they use in virtually every other aspect of their lives. The concern that youth will expect a material reward for volunteering overshadows the fact that most youth are not volunteering and need a reason to start. What if youth see their friends on Facebook are volunteering, using an app to share, maybe winning prizes — and they want to try? To see a child’s eye light up when you praise their art work, or feel the satisfaction of a city-garden blooming provides its own reward, but sometimes it takes a little extra push to start. This initial push, whether it’s to be lauded by friends, or to win a prize, can lead to the lasting, intangible benefits — both for the volunteer and the recipient.

Besides a potential discomfort with material rewards for volunteers, there is also a discomfort with “pride” and sharing about volunteer work. It is common for people to post photos of vacations or food on Facebook, but “bragging” about helping others can be off-putting — why?Part of this discomfort is that there is judgment associated with lack of transparency — when celebrities do photo ops for charity, there is (oft-warranted) suspicion that that they are exploiting the suffering of others for personal gain. While in some cases such sharing may be purely ego-driven — with real, negative effects — most people are complex, and dual motivations exist. In college, friends and I had a party to raise money for Darfur refugees — some people were motivated by the idea of a party, others by helping Darfurians, most, by both — bottom line, we helped Doctors without Borders save lives. Fair Trade and “one-for-one” models in the consumer product space are utilizing such dual motivations successfully and represent a model to be examined and, where relevant, implemented to support volunteers.If there is a self-sacrificing, “No, I don’t want credit” attitude with a repressed (but normal) need for appreciation, leading to volunteer attrition, both volunteers and would-be beneficiaries suffer. So, the question remains, is volunteering about the volunteer feeling “selfless,” or is it about helping others? With budget deficits and a slow economy, more volunteers are needed at food shelters, schools and nursing homes. The dog in the shelter just wants to be walked and petted, he doesn’t care if you, as the volunteer win a prize, or tell your friends how cute he is. In reality, there is a lot of need, and no volunteering is truly selfless, nor does it need to be. Altruism releases the same brain chemicals as eating and sex (Kristof 2010), and seeing the impact you make feels good. In supporting volunteers we need to recognize that simple, dichotomous judgments are not useful, while still maintaining careful perspective as to the ethics and efficacy surrounding volunteer motivation and practice.

Though by no means the perfect solution, Reward Volunteers is our attempt to find this balance. We created the program so that helping yourself and helping others would be intertwined. Primarily, volunteers earn “Reach” or, raffle-style chances to win at an equal rate for both for themselves and the non-profit they serve. Because the program uses Facebook Connect, it helps reach the younger demographic and allows any organization to be represented in the app without the need for a new signup. Thank You messages appear to volunteers after each act of volunteering, and by encouraging volunteers to share to Facebook (and earn Reach), their friends can provide added support. Volunteers have been awarded prizes monthly, and $15,000 will be given to five winning organizations next month. After processing the feedback and reflecting on the most effective ways to support volunteers, we are planning changes to make the focus even more on serving non-profit organizations, while at the same time tightening the integration with friends on Facebook, to add more positive social pressure and support.

A few years ago I created and led a summer camp for Somali Bantu refugees and native Vermont Children, inspired by my mentee, Musa. Normally polite and sweet, when in the group of other middle school peers, Musa became stubborn and difficult, and claimed he would drop out of camp. One day he just didn’t show up. I felt terrible, like a failure, regretting that I couldn’t inspire him, and frustrated that my months of work had led to this. I was upset for him for missing an opportunity, sad for myself, and feeling rejected and ineffectual. Then, three hours later, I looked up to see Musa, dragging his bike, which had a flat tire. He’d walked miles to attend camp. I smiled. I did not volunteer for this form of subtle but powerful “Thank you” and affirmation, but it sure felt good. Unfortunately, many volunteers give and give, without any form of thanks or recognition, and it’s hurting them and those in need of their support.


  1. This Week In Gamification: June 17-23 | EnGaming - June 23, 2012

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