Using Brain Science to Boost Volunteer Engagement

29 July 2019

The world is evolving and volunteers with it. Today’s volunteers have diverse lifestyles, preferences, and needs that must be accounted for when volunteer managers develop volunteer roles and fine-tune their personal leadership approaches.

That said, one thing remains constant: the key psychological processes that drive human behavior. New discoveries in brain science, psychology, and human behavior are disrupting business as usual and creating new opportunities to connect, collaborate, and mobilize volunteers for the greater good.

The original article is titled 'Working with Human Nature, Not Against It: Using Brain Science to Boost Volunteer Engagement' and can be found from the online E-Volunteering Journal, Volume XVII, Issue 1, October 2016 - January 2017

Why Brain Science?

Why is it important to understand how the brain works? Because our brains determine everything we do. By better understanding what triggers humans to act, volunteer managers can become better influencers and, ultimately, better leaders.

Human beings are hardwired to behave in specific ways, based on certain triggers. Our brains have developed over thousands of years of human evolution and have a concrete role in helping us survive as a species. We are not always rational, but we are pretty predictable.

Moreover, competition for attention is fierce. People are bombarded with thousands of pieces of information a day. “Buyers” (or those that would respond to our calls to action) are more sophisticated than ever.

As an organizational leader, you have limited time and resources. So rather than guess what will appeal to potential supporters, why not harness human nature and get it to work for you?

Brain Basics

Human evolution and experience have molded our brains’ neural networks to favor sensory and cognitive functions that have helped us survive as a species. Our inner circuitry is hardwired to work through the path of least resistance, and our fight-or-flight-or-freeze impulse1 controls much of our behavior on a subconscious level.

In addition, hormones can also affect signal transfer in the brain. Hormones like oxytocin, for example, can make us more trusting of strangers and can aid in faster learning.

What social scientists term “pro-social behavior” (e.g., volunteerism) is also largely fueled by primal impulses. In the early days of the human race, it was imperative that groups cooperated for survival. In fact, some argue there is even an altruism gene.2

The brain is also triggered by specific, simplified signals and stimuli. Our behavior is often pre-programmed, partly because our grey matter simply cannot process all of the information coming at us each day. So we react in stereotypical ways based on cues that tell us, in shorthand, what is going on in front of us.

Most people assume we arrive at decisions through a rational thought process. In fact, research has shown that we unconsciously will an action before we are consciously aware we are directing it. First, our brains will access emotional memories from similar past situations and apply them to snap decisions in the present. Then, we will act.

Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman proposes that two systems are at work:3

  • System 1 Thinking—Experiential, quick thinking, emotion, feeling, less effort (our attention reacts to imagery or strong words and affects how we feel)
  • System 2 Thinking—Rational, deliberative, careful, slow, how we are taught in school, harder to operationalize

System 1 Thinking is, in reality, much more powerful and prevalent in human decision-making.

Influence or Manipulation?

Some might question whether using psychology to influence volunteer supporters might be some form of “manipulation.” Consider this: What if you were an Olympic swimmer and became aware of research about how to be faster and more efficient through the water? Would you put it to use?

By its very definition, volunteerism means getting things done through others. As a leader of volunteers, you are in the business of influence. It is your most oft-used skill. You are called upon to convince a myriad of stakeholders on a daily basis—volunteers, co-workers, community partners, executive leadership.

By aligning your practice with research in psychology and social science, you can better adjust your messages and leadership approaches to most effectively move your mission forward.

In this article, I'll share research around four brain phenomena that have practical application for the voluntary sector and your work as a leader. You are also invited to share your ideas about how to translate this theory into practice.

The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) Powerhouse

The Prefrontal Cortex (or PFC) is the brain region responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behavior. The PFC aligns thoughts and actions with internal goals.


The work of the PFC is often referred to as the “executive function” and relates to abilities to do things like: differentiate among conflicting thoughts; determine good and bad; understand future consequences of current activities and work toward a defined goal; and demonstrate self-control in a social context.

Though quite powerful, the PFC has limits. It can only process a few thoughts or ideas at once, requires focus to use, and is easily overwhelmed and fatigued. It requires glucose to function at optimal levels and needs to recharge to fully function. It will shut down if it is not rested, whether you like it or not!

Research to Practice

The limitations of the PFC have all kinds of implications for leaders of volunteers, specifically both for training and assigning work, but also for managing their own to-do lists. Below are a few suggestions:

  • Re-consider whether “boot camp style” volunteer orientation make sense. Given the limitations of the brain, multi-hour presentation style volunteer training is likely to fatigue the PFC. In addition, research suggests that we can only keep about seven new pieces of information in our active memory at one time. If there are more, we simply start to lose bits of information.
  • Re-consider those donut and cookie trays. Food contains bio-chemicals that change your brain chemistry. One simple way to support the PFC is provide it nutrition that “turbocharges” its functioning. Research shows that brain “super foods” that contain antioxidants and flavonoids like blueberries, almonds, sunflower seeds, carrots, celery, red delicious apples, dark chocolate, and green tea can help our PFC work better. Plenty of water also helps. (And, yes, you do have a research-based rationale for providing snacks to volunteers!)
  • Re-consider how volunteer roles are designed. Research has also shown that our brains remain engaged in incomplete tasks, even when we have shifted work and that we have an innate need for closure. In a study done by Greist-Bousquet and Schiffman (1992)4, two groups were given a list of anagrams to solve: 
  • Group 1 was given a list of 10 anagrams and then asked to estimate the amount of time it took them to finish solving the list. Their estimated time was then divided by their actual time. Group 1 was very close to correct.
  • Group 2 was given a list of 20, but was abruptly interrupted after the first 10. They were asked to estimate their time, asked to finish the last set, and then again asked to estimate their time. Group 2 overestimated the time to solve the first set, and was near correct for the second set (but not as near as Group 1). When interrupted, the test subjects were less able to accurately estimate the time for the group prior to the interruption. The researchers posit that this may be due to the inability of the brain to "let go" of a task that has not been completed. In other words, we crave closure, even subconsciously.

When volunteers are unable to complete tasks assigned, either because they are overly ambitious for the time available or due to interruptions, imagine how this might continue to engage the PFC and lead to a sense of fatigue or burnout.

  • Re-consider how you structure your own workday. The myth of multi-tasking as a time-saving tactic has now been debunked. Only 2% of human brains can focus on two things at once. In reality, we actually switch complex tasks versus do them simultaneously, and switching between tasks adds an additional 25% to the time to complete. Brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of productivity (that’s 16 hours every week!).5 Simply put, the PFC can’t effectively focus on more than one thing.

And, you actually get worse at it, the more you do it. According to Dr. Clifford Nass, at Stanford University:

People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand….They're even terrible at multitasking….So they're pretty much mental wrecks.6

The bottom line? Ignore the limitations of the PFC at your peril.

Share Your Thoughts
•  When working with your team, what are specific strategies you might use to promote optimal function and recovery of the prefrontal cortex?


Cognitive Dissonance

Consistency is a second powerful driver of human behavior. We experience what’s called “cognitive dissonance” when we perceive that our actions (consciously or subconsciously motivated) don’t reflect our inner beliefs and values. This is so psychically uncomfortable that we will adjust our thoughts and behaviors to resolve the inconsistency immediately.

A study by psychologist Steven Sherman illustrates this point.7 In it, local residents were surveyed by phone and asked questions about supporting the American Cancer Society, including whether or not they would be likely to volunteer to fundraise door to door.

No one wanted to appear unhelpful, so most said “yes.” A few days later, a representative from the American Cancer Society called with a genuine request to volunteer. As a result, the organization realized an impressive 700% increase in their volunteer corps!

This so called “question-behavior effect” has been demonstrated in other studies as well. Consumer researcher Daniel Howard put the theory to the test.8 Residents were called and asked if they would agree to allow a representative of the Hunger Relief Committee to visit their homes to sell cookies, which would go toward helping people in need.

When tested on its own, only 10% of the people called agreed. However, if the caller initially asked, “How are you feeling this evening?", several interesting things happened:

  • Of the 120 individuals called, most (108) gave the expected reply (“Good,” “Fine,” etc.)
  • 32% agreed to receive the cookie seller at their homes
  • Nearly everyone visited purchased a cookie

True to the consistency principle, those who were visited reduced their subconscious experience of cognitive dissonance by continuing to act in a way that aligned with their initial positive reaction.

Research to Practice

The brain’s innate need to remain consistent with previous behavior has interesting implications for leaders of volunteers as they cultivate engagement and deepen community commitment to their causes. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Re-consider structuring volunteer asks. Think baby steps, offering volunteers small ways to get involved if they are unable or unwilling (at the moment) to make a larger commitment. Deeper engagement can grow with time.
  • Re-consider how to increase the power of volunteer commitments. Even small changes in how and what people pledge to do can have an impact. Specifically:
  • Small commitments often later lead to large commitments. For example, salespeople often focus first on securing an initial order, even if it's a small one. Later, the customer will be more likely to commit to buying again.
  • Written commitments are usually more powerful than verbal commitments. We know the power of the written word. When contracts are signed and promises put into writing, the commitment level increases tenfold.
  • Public commitments are stronger than private commitments. Taking a public stand that is witnessed by others compels us to continually endorse that commitment.

The bottom line? Creating pathways for supporters to express and reconfirm their commitment to your cause will result in longer-term involvement.

Share Your Thoughts
•  How can the law of consistency (working against cognitive dissonance) be used to inspire deeper volunteer engagement?

Social Norms

Another powerful human behavior is what’s called “in-group favoritism.”  In short, we are more likely to be persuaded by people we consider part of our so-called “tribe.” So much so that when we merely look at faces of people in our insider group, there is greater neural activity in the brain.

Even if we don’t know someone personally, he or she can persuade us, if we think they are similar to us in some way. Psychologist Robert Cialdini and his colleagues tested this theory with messaging to encourage hotel guests to re-use their towels.9

They used five messages in different hotel rooms. Guess which had the greatest impact on environmentally friendly behavior?

    You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.
    In exchange for your participation in this program, we at the hotel will donate a percentage of the energy savings to a nonprofit environmental protection organization. The environment deserves our combined efforts. You can join us by reusing your towels during your stay.
    Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.
     In a study conducted in Fall 2003, 75% of the guests who stayed in this room (#313) participated in our new resource savings program by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.
    In a study conducted in Fall 2003, 76% of the women and 74% of the men participated in our new resource savings program by using their towels more than once. You can join the other men and women in this program to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.

The fourth message was the clear winner; nearly half of guests who received that message saved their towels. Although they were complete strangers, others who stayed in their room were similar enough to be considered part of the guest’s “in group.”

So, what’s going on here? One might argue that it is more rational to follow the norms of the group that align most closely with the guest’s personal values (e.g., environmentalists). Or, one might assume that guests might conform to the norms of the majority (e.g., all hotel guests). But, it is not so.

Surprisingly, participation rates were highest for the group that was least personally meaningful to them but most physically proximate (those who stayed in the exact same room). This suggests that people are more likely to be influenced by group norms when the setting in which those norms are formed is comparable to the setting they currently occupy.

Research to Practice

Social norm theory can be applied to encourage volunteers to follow through on commitments. Here’s one example:

  • Re-consider how you make requests. By reminding volunteers with information about people and environments that are as close to them as possible, social norms are more effectively reinforced.
  • Commonly Used: Please log your volunteer hours in the database each week.
  • Better:  87% of all volunteers log their volunteer hours in the database each week.
  • Best:  87% of all volunteers who work in this office (department name) log your volunteer hours in the database each week.

The bottom line? Pay close attention to how you frame requests, using social norms to encourage mission-critical follow through.

Share Your Thoughts
How can social norms be used to inspire greater volunteer accountability?

Social Proof

The reliance on social proof in decision-making is one of the most powerful human tendencies. It can affect teams, positively or negatively, and can even influence emotional responses. Psychologist Albert Bandura studied the amazing effects of social proof on small children who were afraid of dogs:10  A group of dog-phobic children were asked to watch a little boy happily playing with dogs. After four days, 67% were willing to climb in a pen and play with the dog, even after everyone else had left the room. Even after a month, they remained unafraid, and were more willing than ever to interact with dogs.

A video recording had the same effect, and was even more effective when a variety of other children were playing with dogs. So, the more children who were willing to play with dogs, the more others were willing to fall into line with what they saw others doing. Leading by example really does have power.

Social proof has been used by companies to increase the effectiveness of their marketing efforts, particularly through the use of customer comments, ratings and testimonials. When the phenomenon of social proof is combined with technology, powerful shifts take place.

The global public relations firm Edelman publishes an annual report on public trust that is used by companies and nonprofits to determine who are the best messengers for their brand .11 Over the past decade, they have documented a growing “inversion of influence”12 where “people like me,” versus industry experts, are now considered some of the most accessible and trusted sources of information by the public. In this new reality, social proof is powerful, as evidenced by peer-to-peer trumping top down influence in court of public opinion and action.

Research to Practice

The opportunity for authentic, compelling information about social causes, generated and disseminated by volunteers throughout their networks, has the potential to change public awareness and perception and build the case for increasing support. Here are some ideas:

  • Re-consider who delivers your calls to action. Volunteer testimonials are powerful examples of social proof, especially when the volunteers are very similar to those you are trying to reach.
  • Re-consider the focus of your appeals. Desperate pleas for help from an understaffed organization, however, cast doubts as to whether the program is worth supporting. It works against social proof by suggesting hat if others aren’t volunteering, it must be wrong.

The bottom line? Without sharing evidence of social proof in your communications, you are working at a deficit and perhaps even calling into question the value of your the volunteer experiences you offer.

Share Your Thoughts
How can social proof be used to boost volunteer recruitment results?

One Last Thing

I’ve shared four brain phenomena—the prefrontal cortex powerhouse, cognitive dissonance, social norms, and social proof—that may inspire new ways to lead and influence others.

If you’ve decided to test out new brain-friendly tactics, have patience. Building your skills as an influencer takes time. Ask yourself: What small adjustments can I make to become more efficient and effective at tapping into human nature? Where can I get additional support? Choose one thing to try, and work from there.

Also, recognize that your workplace may not completely or immediately embrace your new ideas. The good news is that you can use the same brain phenomena I’ve described here to influence and convince your leaders and co-workers, too!

By Tobi Johnson

The original article is titled 'Working with Human Nature, Not Against It: Using Brain Science to Boost Volunteer Engagement' and can be found from the online E-Volunteering Journal, Volume XVII, Issue 1, October 2016 - January 2017

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