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~ March 2006 ~ Topics

The Psychological Contract—Some New Observations
Interviews: Get To New Depths

The Psychological Contract—Some New Observations

Research into psychological contracts has long been a staple of in the for-profit sector. What personality factors and/or motivators are indicators of the employee who stays for a long time? What keeps them enthused about the job? In recent years researchers in the nonprofit sector began looking at volunteers and the psychological contracts made with the organizations for which the person volunteers. Notable among the researchers is Matthew Liao-Troth. He has studied volunteer fire fighters and crisis counselors to determine the type and extent of contracts made with their organizations.

A new study of psychological contracts, by Liao-Troth, examines the behavior of student volunteers. 105 students at a midwestern university, across several demographic categories, participated in the research. The average student volunteer had been with their organization for 1.84 years, and worked primarily in youth activities, although there was representation from those working in hospitals, food banks, and delivering meals to the homebound. The results of the research produced observations for managers of volunteers.

Student volunteers are interested in career exploration. Knowing that students want to engage in a form of career exploration during the volunteer assignment might mean altering duties or experiences for the individual.
The organization needs to understand the psychological contract it is offering. The normal way of using the information on psychological contracts is from the point of view of the person volunteering. Liao-Troth suggests organizations need to up-end that view. The organization needs to study, with some time and effort, what psychological contracts exist now for current volunteers.(This means testing current volunteers on certain personality inventories). The next step is to develop a profile of what is offered to volunteers when the person signs on. (Such things as reduced rate on organizational events, being in on the decision making process of the organization, etc.) Knowing this can make the search for volunteers who are compatible with current psychological contracts easier.

Organizations use information on the psychological contract when recruiting and screening. The suggestion here is that not everyone is suited to all organizations. Helping potential volunteers clarify what they want from a volunteer experience provides the opportunity for both sides to make the right choice. The volunteer and the organization do not spend hours in orientation, training, and placement to end up dissatisfied with the placement.

Clarify obligations for the volunteers. Liao-Troth says, ". . .explicitly clarify what the obligations of the organizations and the entitlements of volunteers are in their mutual relationship."

Develop standard procedures for recruitment and screening. Telling volunteers in a systematic way (the same from volunteer to volunteer) about the duties and obligations of volunteering is essential to a healthy psychological contract. The manager's responsibility is to make sure happens.

Liao-Troth, Matthew. 2005 "Are They Here for the Long Haul? The Effects of Functional Motives and Personality Factors on the Psychological Contracts of Volunteers." Nonprofit and Volunteer Sector Quarterly, Vol. 34. No. 4 December 2005.

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Interested in more information? Check out our online bookstore for: Episodic Volunteering: Organizing and Managing the Short-Term Volunteer Program, by Nancy Macduff and The One Minute Answer to Volunteer Management Questions, by Mary Kay Hood.

Details for Episodic Volunteering Book Details for One Miinue Answer Book

Interviews: Get To New Depths

The match between volunteer and organization is crucial to success and retention. Much can be learned during the interview about a volunteer. Here are some tips on interview questions to help you get below the surface to determine whether this is a good match.

Question Comments
1. Ask the person to describe a typical day with their last volunteer job or employment. This is a question where the interviewer must listen between the lines and then probe for specifics. What excited you about your day? When were you bored? Who were the people the prospective volunteer interacted with? How did you react to interruptions or people changing your assignments?
2. What did the previous organization for whom you volunteered value most about your participation? A common question in interviews is to ask the person to describe strength and weaknesses. Most interviewees have pat answers to those questions. This question gets beyond that and provides a platform to continue a discussion of personal attitudes and behaviors toward work. A variation on this question is to ask what other volunteers or paid staff valued.
3. What would you say drives you crazy about volunteers or paid staff with whom you have worked? Here is a chance to see the irritants for the individual. You can also probe for what in the person makes these things irritating and thus get to weaknesses the person might bring to an assignment.
4. Ask about the person’s relationship with those in positions of authority. Organizations have their own culture. A volunteer might feel stifled in certain environments or confused in another. Understanding the person’s relationship with those in authority is a good question. “What was your relationship like with your direct supervisor? What did you like about their supervision style? What did you like least?

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The Points of Light Foundation has forms available to nominate volunteers and volunteer organizations for the Daily Points of Light Award. It is designed recognize individuals and groups that demonstrate unique and innovative approaches to community volunteering and citizen action, with a strong emphasis on service focused on the goals for children and young people set by the Presidents Summit for American's Future. The award is given five days a week, excluding holidays. If you would like nomination forms, call 202-729-8000.


By calling 1-800-VOLUNTEER in the U.S., individuals can be connected to their local volunteer center. This is a national interactive call routing system designed to get volunteers connected to people who can help them volunteer.

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