LARNet; The Cyber Journal of Applied Leisure and Recreation Research
A Case Study of the Willingness to Volunteer

for a
Public Leisure Service Organization

James A. Busser and Michael S. Norwalk

James A. Busser is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Michael S. Norwalk is the Event Coordinator at the Lightpath Long Island Classic, a Senior PGA Tour event on Long Island, New York.

Address all correspondence to:
James A. Busser
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway Box 453035
Las Vegas, NV 89154-3035
Phone: 702-895-0942

A Case Study of the Willingness to Volunteer for a
Public Leisure Service Organization

Abstract: Americans have a long history of voluntary service. One estimate suggests that approximately 20% of Americans were engaged in organized volunteer work. Of that group, 10% volunteer for leisure service organizations (Independent Sector, 1996). In this time of reduced or stagnant leisure service agency budgets, volunteers are extremely important for leisure service agencies in meeting the increasing demands of the public. As a result, there is a need to fully understand volunteer demographic makeup and motivations. The purpose of this study was to explore the characteristics of adults willing to volunteer for a public leisure service agency. A telephone survey of 640 adults was conducted in a large urban area in the southwestern U.S. Of the sample, 230 adults (36%) indicated a willingness to volunteer for the leisure service agency. This is higher than the national average who actually volunteer and suggests that leisure service agencies may not be recruiting potential willing volunteers. Results also indicated that adults who used parks, recreation and cultural facilities and participated in recreation programs were more willing to volunteer than those who did not utilize leisure services. Respondents’ ages 56 and older were less willing to volunteer than younger individuals. Demographic characteristics were not related to motivations for volunteering. The most important volunteer motive was altruism. Men and women did differ, however, in the types of volunteer experiences desired. Women were more interested in programs for the disabled, senior day care and teaching classes than men. On the other hand, men were more interested in youth sport coaching. The most prevalent barrier to volunteering was the lack of time. The paper offers implications for the recruitment and retention of volunteers for leisure service managers.


Americans have a long history of voluntary service. There are several projections regarding the number of Americans engaged in volunteer work. Fischer, Mueller, and Cooper (1991) estimated that between 16% and 55% of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 volunteer. According to a survey conducted by Gallup, almost 50% of Americans volunteer an average of four hours per week for their cause (Independent Sector, 1996). Hayghe (1991) suggested that after eliminating informal volunteering (e.g., babysitting for a neighbor) approximately 20% of individuals aged 16 years and older volunteered for some institution or organization. Backman, Wicks, and Silverberg (1997) estimated that 80 million adults in the U.S. volunteer every year, contributing over $150 billion in activities or services.

The level of volunteerism varies widely according to the type of organization (Ibrahim & Brannen, 1997). The types of organizations and activities to which volunteers affiliate include: religious organizations (23%), informal volunteering (19%), education (13%), general fund-raising (11%), and recreation (10%) (Independent Sector, 1996). Lower rates of participation have been recorded in social or welfare organizations, as well as sports/recreational groups, by other researchers (Ibrahim & Brannen, 1997).

There are numerous descriptions of the contributions that volunteers have made to leisure service agencies. Ostiguyil and Hopp (1995) described the role of volunteers in inner city youth programs. Thousands of volunteers restored and maintained hiking trails in Canada's park system (Wickens, 1994). Complete playgrounds were installed by volunteers at Kirkland Air Force Base (Garcia, 1997). In addition, Brudney (1993) found in a study of Georgia volunteers that local governments benefited from volunteers by reduced costs, expanded capability, improved community relations, and enhanced service quality. Each of these contributions illustrates the value that volunteers can make to a leisure service agency and its constituents.

Research on Volunteers

There are several studies that address volunteerism in leisure service organizations. Research has addressed the coproduction of recreation services (Backman, Wicks, & Silverberg, 1997); recreation-related volunteer organizations (Dennis & Zube, 1988; Caldwell & Andereck, 1994; Bigley, Fesenmaier, & Roehl, 1994); the characteristics and motivations of collegiate volunteers (Fitch, 1987; Trudeau & Devlin, 1996); measuring motivations to volunteer in human services groups (Cnaan & Goldberg-Glen, 1991), and a demographic understanding of volunteerism (Gillespie & King, 1985; Ibrahim & Brannen, 1997).

Two studies (Hayghe, 1991; Dennis & Zube, 1988) reported that while volunteers are drawn from all demographic categories, certain groups are more often represented. In addition, women are more likely to volunteer than men (Cnaan & Goldberg-Glen, 1991; Trudeau & Devlin, 1996; Caldwell & Andereck, 1994). The prevalence of women in volunteer groups ranges from a high of 78% (Fitch, 1987) to a low of 52% (Backman et al., 1997). Perhaps because the literature spanned a widely disparate group of organizations, age as a demographic descriptor was less uniform than gender. Volunteers tended to be slightly younger in co-produced services (24% between the ages of 24-35) than in voluntary membership associations. However, Bigley et al. (1994) found that while 19% of the volunteers of a large metropolitan museum were under 35, 38% were between the ages of 35 and 56. Age data regarding human services volunteers has been limited to the Cnaan and Goldberg-Glen study, but detailed an older member base in which the average age was 50.6 years, and 46% of volunteers were over 60 years old.

Similar to age, annual household income appears to assist in the understanding of the types of organizations for which one volunteers. Studies of collegiate volunteers (Fitch, 1987) and members of recreation-related voluntary associations, affiliated for example with zoos, museums, and environmental concerns (Caldwell & Andereck, 1994; Bigley et al., 1994; Dennis & Zube, 1998), reported that high socio-economic status (i.e., income) is a common and predictive variable explaining participation. Bigley et al. (1994) revealed that over 60% of volunteers had annual household incomes exceeding $40,000. Backman et al. (1997) and Lammers (1991), however, reported average or below average incomes for the largest percentages of volunteers, 18% earning $10,000-20,000 and 26% at $20,000-29,000 respectively.

Many studies have examined and categorized the motivational objectives of individuals who donate their services to various organizations. One of the major motives for volunteering is giving something worthwhile to society. Helping others has been a consistent reason why individuals volunteer (Brudney, 1994). Other motives include sharpening or stretching ones job skills, testing new careers, or building a resume (Beverly, 1991). Others have suggested that people volunteer for achievement, affiliation or power.

Altruism and self-interest have emerged as the dominant motives. Caldwell and Andereck (1994) describe three incentives underlying an individual’s willingness to volunteer. Purposive incentives are based on "concerns of a suprapersonal nature" (Caldwell & Anderck) and defined as "doing something useful and contributing to society" (Farrell, Johnston, & Twynam, 1998). Solidary motives are based on social interaction, interpersonal relationships, friendships, and group status and identification. Material incentives are benefits whose equivalent value is calculated to determine the cost-benefit ratio of volunteer participation. Cnaan and Goldberg-Glen (1991) identified similar motivational forces, but used a different terminology that is more representative of traditional literature. Purposive motives are labeled as altruistic, social incentives correspond with solidary motives, and material incentives translate into egoistic motives (i.e. any benefit sought for no purpose other than to improve the volunteer’s welfare).

Examining motivations for volunteering from a demographic standpoint, several generalizations can be made. While both men and women consistently rate purposive incentives as their primary reason for participating, women have demonstrated a greater willingness or likelihood to volunteer. They are also motivated by altruistic concerns to a greater degree (Trudeau & Devlin, 1996). Men exhibit a tendency to place greater emphasis on issues of self-interest (Gillespie & King, 1985; Caldwell & Andereck, 1994; Backman et al., 1997). Men also are more likely to volunteer for social causes and sports, perhaps indicating a greater expression of social, or solidary motives.

Age has also been an important variable when trying to understand volunteer motives (Gillespie & King, 1985). People over the age of 38 were more likely to be motivated by purposive and solidary motives than younger subjects (under 34) who rated egoistic and extrinsic rewards as more important (Backman et al., 1997). For example, younger subjects often perceive volunteer activities as opportunities to sharpen or stretch job skills to augment resumes and explore career options (Beverly, 1991; Gillespie & King, 1985; Backman et al., 1997). However, in studies involving collegiate volunteers, such material benefits were ranked surprisingly low among specific motivational issues (Fitch, 1987; Trudeau & Devlin, 1996).

Volunteer motivations should not be considered as distinct and static forces. Rather, they are more like a combination of dynamic influences that overlap and evolve in such a way as to satisfy an individual’s unique needs (Cnaan & Goldberg-Glen, 1991; Ibrahim & Brannen). Backman et al. (1997) suggested that voluntary activities can be placed on a continuum between altruistic and egoistic motives, "with most individuals incorporating a portion of both into their decision to contribute time to service organizations" (p, 61). Interestingly, the authors further distinguish between persons whose motives occupy extreme ends of the continuum. In their study, they define volunteers in a manner consistent with traditional volunteer literature, that is, as individuals who volunteer time and services to benefit others. Such individuals, obviously, would be characterized as altruistic. Conversely, individuals whose motivation is egoistic in nature, are differentiated from volunteers by definition, and are identified as co-producers. Coproducers contribute so that they and/or family members benefit directly from programs and services. Several studies have found evidence that traditional volunteers in park and recreation services often have co-producing motives influencing their involvement (Backman et al).

Volunteer involvement does indeed appear to be motivated by personal benefit to a substantial degree. Hodgkinson and Weitzman (1992) reported that 26% of their volunteer subjects attributed their participation in an organization to the benefits it provided family members and friends. Furthermore, 36% of respondents also reported they had themselves previously benefited from the organization they were currently serving. Additionally, the authors noted that those who, as children or adolescents, saw an admired role model donate time and service were more likely to volunteer at an appropriate age. These were among several factors the study revealed as reliable predictors of volunteering. However, volunteering can not be assumed merely on the basis of personal involvement, nor can a willingness to volunteer. Dennis and Zube (1988) suggest an individual must harbor an elevated level of concern for an activity, an issue, or an organization before volunteer service can be positively related to personal involvement.

As government funding and/or services have declined (Backman et al, 1997; Bigley, Fesenmeier, & Roehl, 1994) while public demand for these provisions has simultaneously escalated, leisure service organizations have grown increasingly reliant on volunteers to ensure the delivery of programs and services (Caldwell & Andereck, 1994). It is likely that without volunteers "the level and range of park and recreation services offered would decline substantially in many agencies" (Crompton, 1999; p. 343). It is essential, therefore, to investigate voluntary involvement in leisure service organizations, particularly those factors that influence or guide a willingness to participate.

The purpose of this study was to explore the characteristics of adults willing to volunteer for a public leisure service agency. Specifically, this study explored whether adults would be interested in volunteering, their motives for volunteering, the volunteer roles in which they would be interested, barriers to volunteering and demographic characteristics.


This study was part of a larger research project conducted on behalf of a large community park and recreation department in the southwest that served an urban population of approximately 500,000 residents. The department provided 39 community parks with a total of 616 acres. In addition, 11 parks on school district sites were also provided along with 17 recreation and cultural facilities. The department also offered a full range of recreation programs to residents throughout the year.

A telephone survey of community residents was conducted. Random digit dialing techniques were used to select respondent households. The sampling frame was constructed using the most current telephone exchange data available. Telephone exchanges refer to the three digit prefixes included in any telephone number. Seven geographic locations representing recreation and park planning districts were identified. A proportionate stratified random sample based on the seven geographic locations of exchanges and on the proportion of residential listings in the exchange area was drawn. Exchange digits were matched with randomly generated four-digit numbers to produce a seven-digit number called by interviewers.

Computer assisted telephone interviewing was used. Interviews were only conducted with adults 18 years and older. Interviewers called telephone numbers up to 10 different times in order to increase the probability of obtaining a valid respondent. The questions on volunteering were part of a larger data collection effort. The entire interview lasted from 20 to 40 minutes.

During the interview, individuals were asked to indicate usage of parks and recreation/cultural facilities and their participation in recreation programs within the past year. The volunteer questions addressed willingness to volunteer, motivations for volunteering, the type of volunteer experience desired, and barriers to becoming a volunteer. In addition, demographic information was collected on all respondents including gender, age, ethnicity, number of individuals in the household and annual household income.


A total of 6,159 different telephone numbers were dialed. Of this total, 4,102 telephone numbers were ineligible due to variety of reasons (e.g., fax number, no answer, out of service). Out of the remaining 2,057 telephone numbers, 640 (31%) individuals agreed to participate in the study and completed the interview. Respondents were asked if they were willing to volunteer for the local parks and recreation agency identified in the study. Of the total sample of 640 adults, 230 individuals (36%) indicated an interest in volunteering. The demographic information regarding those interested in volunteering included 41% male and 59% female. The median age was 37; the median number of household members was 3; and the median income was $25,000 - $50,000. The ethnicity of the respondents interested in volunteering was as follows: Caucasian (68%), African American (15%), Hispanic (10%), and Asian (4%). The ethnic percentage of individuals interested in volunteering is proportional to the ethnic makeup of the broader community. Five research questions were addressed in this study.

Research Question 1: What is the effect of park, recreation facility, and recreation program usage on willingness to volunteer?

Respondents (n = 640) answered questions that targeted usage of both parks and recreation/cultural facilities (i.e., community centers, senior centers, or golf courses) in the past twelve months. Respondents were also asked if they had participated in any department-sponsored recreation programs or classes during the same time period. Seventy percent of residents stated that they had visited a park during the last year while 38% had visited a recreation or cultural facility. A smaller percentage of residents (16%) had participated in department recreation programs during the past year.

Chi-square analysis revealed that willingness to volunteer was significantly impacted by an individual’s usage of both parks and recreation/cultural facilities, as well as by participation in recreation programs. As presented in Table 1, 43% of those who visited a park within the past year stated a willingness to volunteer, whereas only 24% of non-users were willing to volunteer. A greater percentage of recreation and cultural facility users (46%) also affirmed a willingness to volunteer, as opposed to non-users (32%) who expressed a similar desire. Similarly, individuals who had participated in department recreation programs were more willing to volunteer (54%) than those individuals who had not participated in programs (34%). In addition, the greatest percentage of those willing to volunteer came from those respondents who had participated in a recreation program compared to users of parks or recreation and cultural facilities. This finding clearly indicates that involvement in park and recreation facilities and programs positively impacts willingness to volunteer.

Table 1
Chi-square Results of Willingness to Volunteer Between Users and Non-Users of
Parks, Recreation and Cultural Facilities and Recreation Programs

Willingness to Volunteer Parks* 
Recreation/Cultural Facilities**
Recreation Programs***

Users Non-Users Users Non-Users Participants Non-Participants
Willing to Volunteer 43% 24% 45% 32% 54% 34%
Unwilling to Volunteer 58% 76% 55% 68% 46% 66%
*c2 = 18.43, p < .01
**c2 = 9.44, p < .01
***c2 = 14.01, p < .01

Research Question 2: What demographic characteristics are representative of those individuals willing to volunteer?

Chi-square analysis of respondents indicated that neither gender c2 (1, N = 624) = .06, p > .05, nor income c2 (6, N = 549) = 2.87, p > .05, effected willingness to volunteer. Age, however, did impact willingness to volunteer. Table 2 indicates the percentages of individuals willing to volunteer across four age groups. Overall, the percentage of individuals willing to volunteer declined as age increased. Individuals in the 18-31 year old group had the highest percentage (46%) of willing volunteers. Respondents' ages 56 and older were less likely to volunteer than those in any of the other three age groups.

Table 2
Chi-square Observed Frequencies of Willingness to Volunteer by Age*

Willingness to Volunteer 
Willing to Volunteer
Not Willing to Volunteer
*c2 = 25.99, p < .01

Research Question 3: What are the motives of those willing to volunteer?

Respondents were presented with a list of ten volunteer motives and asked to identify their primary reason for volunteering. Among the adults willing to volunteer (n=218), the majority identified two primary reasons; helping others (38%) and contributing to the community (32%). Other motivations to volunteer included achievement/personal growth (7%), gain experience (6%), increase social contact (6%), interest in recreation and parks (5%), self expression (2%), fill leisure time (2%), gain personal recognition (2%) and meet corporate expectations (1%). Results of chi-square analysis indicated that there were no differences in the motives of those willing to volunteer based on age c2 (27, N = 218) = 33.53, p>.05, gender c2 (9, N = 218) = 5.56, p>.05, and income c2 (54, N = 198) = 32.68, p>.05.

Research Question 4: What type of volunteer experience is preferred?

Respondents willing to volunteer were also presented with a list of eight types of volunteer experiences and asked to identify the one of most interest to them. Overall, volunteering as a youth sport coach was the choice of 25% of respondents. Other volunteer roles included serving individuals with disabilities in recreation programs (19%), maintaining parks (16%), special projects (14%), teaching classes (11%), senior day care (6%), serving on an advisory board (5%), and fundraising (4%). Chi-square analysis revealed significant differences between men and women and the type of volunteer experience desired. Table 3 provides the frequency of volunteer experience desired by gender. There were four volunteer roles where men and women differed in the percentage of individuals interested and four roles where there was approximately the same percentage of interest. There was a higher percentage of interest by women than men in programs for the disabled (+14%), senior day care (+10%) and teaching classes (+7%). On the other hand there was a higher percentage of men than women interested in volunteering as a youth sport coach (+32%). Maintaining parks, serving on an advisory board, fundraising and special projects received approximately the same percentage level of interest by men and women. Age c2 (21, N = 195) = 21.09, p>.05 and income c2 (42, N = 177) = 34.14, p>.05 did not play a role in the type of volunteer experience desired.

Table 3
Chi-square Results of Volunteer Experience Desired by Gender

Volunteer Experience
Gender* (n=195)
Men Women
Maintain Parks 16% 16%
Programs for Disabled 10% 10%
Youth Sport Coach 43% 11%
Advisory Board 7% 5%
Senior Day Care - 10%
Fundraising 4% 4%
Teaching Classes 7% 14%
Special Projects 13% 16%
*c2 = 39.31, p<.01

Research Question 5: What type of barriers prevents individuals from volunteering?

The total sample of 640 adults indicated a number of barriers, from a list of eleven, which could prevent them from volunteering. Time constraints were identified as the number one barrier (36%), followed by respondents indicating multiple barriers (32%), including time constraints, work demands, and home/children commitments. There were a number of other reasons provided which would prevent individuals from volunteering. Only a small group of adults (1%) indicated that they were simply not interested in volunteering.


The present exploratory analysis produced results that were divergent with other studies in several aspects, and consistent in others. The results of the current study did not support previous findings (Cnaan & Goldberg-Glen, 1994; Trudeau & Devlin, 1996; Caldwell & Andereck, 1994) that women are more likely to volunteer than men. Also, the current study did not reveal that women are motivated to a greater degree by altruism (Trudeau & Devlin, 1996) and that men place a greater emphasis on issues of self-interest (Gillespie & King, 1985; Caldwell & Andereck, 1994; Backman et al., 1997). Regarding age, the study did not reveal that its younger respondents were motivated primarily by egoistic concerns while its older subjects were more likely influenced by purposive and solidary motives (Backman, et al, 1997; Beverly, 1991; Gillespie & King, 1985). The study did, however, lend support to the concept that motivational orientations overlap and suit an individual’s needs (Cnaan & Goldberg, 1991; Ibrahim & Brannen, 1997; Backman et al., 1997). Furthermore, the study produced evidence that strongly links volunteerism to personal usage and involvement with recreational areas, and facilities, as well as with services (Backman et al., 1997; Hodgkinson & Weitzman, 1992).

That usage and personal involvement emerged as the most salient factors in determining willingness to volunteer is the study’s most powerful finding. This finding confirms what many would have expected, namely that those who use and interact with an agency’s facilities, programs, and staff would naturally comprise the largest pool of candidates harboring a willingness to volunteer for that agency. This expectation receives further support by virtue of the fact that the largest percentage of people willing to volunteer came from the group whose members have participated in department sponsored programs within the past twelve months. Ultimately, it suggests that those with the most intense connection to the department feel most willing to contribute their time and services.

This study did not investigate the effect of co-production on willingness to volunteer directly. However, the finding that users of parks, recreation and cultural facilities and those participating in recreation programs were more likely to be willing to volunteer appears related to co-production. Coproduction of park and recreation programs and services is viewed as the provision of voluntary service in which the volunteer or their family is a primary beneficiary of the service (Crompton, 1999). A recent study examined the co-productive motives of park and recreation volunteers (Silverberg, Ellis, Backman & Backman, 1999). One of the study's findings indicated that volunteers’ coproduction motives included three areas; the department and community needed me, knowledge of governmental operations, and benefits to people they know. Users and participants of parks and recreation services and programs are receiving direct benefits and may be important factors in the concept of coproduction. As suggested by Silverberg et al, more investigation of co-production is needed to fully understand the complexity of volunteer motivations.

Analysis of the data also revealed a seemingly paradoxical relationship between self-reported motivations underpinning a willingness to volunteer and the behavior of those most likely to volunteer. Altruistic motives, (i.e., contributing to the community and helping others) were the most prevalent motivations associated with a willingness to volunteer among every demographic segment. Yet, it would appear in practice that those who have derived the greatest benefit, or who perhaps have the greatest demand for services (Hodgkinson & Weitzman, 1991), are most likely to volunteer. This could suggest that altruism, in combination with the egoistic and coproductive motives (Backman et al., 1997), best explain volunteering.

Implications for Leisure Service Managers

The descriptive results of this study provide a number of findings that are important to the management and recruitment of volunteers in leisure service agencies. The finding that 36% of the respondents in this community were interested in volunteering is much higher than the percentage of individuals found in the Gallup Poll to be volunteering in recreation settings. It can not be inferred that willingness to volunteer can be equated with the full commitment of actually volunteering. However, it does suggest that leisure service agencies may not be capturing as many volunteers as are available and interested within their communities.

This study also found that users of parks and recreation facilities and programs were more likely to consider volunteering than non-users. Leisure service managers should identify those individuals who use parks, recreation and cultural facilities and participate in recreation programs. The database of agency users can then be utilized to more efficiently target individuals for volunteering.

The primary motive for volunteering in this study was helping others followed by contribution to the community. Helping others was also the number one motive in two other studies of college students involved in community service (Fitch, 1987) and adult hospital volunteers (Zweigenhaft, Armstrong, Quintis & Riddick, 1996). As an increasing number of nonprofit, public and even for-profit organizations seek volunteers, citizens enjoy a variety of motive related outlets for donating their time. Leisure service agencies must compete for these individuals with marketing and recruitment strategies (Brudney, 1993) that are effective.

Recruitment efforts should focus on the contribution that volunteers make to the community and others. This not only provides a strong match for recruitment of volunteers, but also, may be particularly needed in retaining volunteers. A poll conducted by U.S. News and World Report of 1,000 adults found that 20% of volunteers reduced their involvement because they perceived that they were not engaged in meaningful work to help solve problems (Gerson, 1997). As a result, in order to keep volunteers engaged and motivated they must be given tasks from which they can clearly see the impact of their work.

Volunteer management must also consider the time constraints placed on potential volunteers. Lack of time has been found to be a prevalent and consistent reason why individuals do not volunteer (Granville, 1996). As a result, leisure service managers must offer volunteers convenient and carefully defined projects. Many non-profits have reduced the number of meetings required of volunteers and scheduled functions for early morning or evening to accommodate those who work full time (Beverly, 1991). Further, the managers must consider the role of interest to the volunteer. In this study men and women differed in the type of volunteer experience desired. Leisure service managers should conduct interviews with potential volunteers or recruit individuals for specific roles in order to obtain a successful match.


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