Demystifying volunteering


Demystifying volunteering


I have been wanting to complete this post and add it to the SNEH blog for the last 7 days. ‘It’s an easy task to complete’, I have been thinking everyday. ‘Dump my thoughts on a document, rearrange and convert the thoughts into well-defined paragraphs, refine each paragraph, share it with Shraddha. Easy! I just have to sit on a table and use my fingertips and a little bit of brain. I can do that!’, I often think. And yet 7 days later I have still not completed the introduction. I will leave the introduction as it is for now. I know I can complete it this weekend.


Ehhh! I missed completing the introduction on the weekend because I was, well, hmmmm, busy doing nothing. I know I can surely complete it today, or maybe tomorrow? Let me add it to my todo list.


Ahhh! I forgot about my todo list. I mean I knew I had made the list and I had to work on the tasks but I just … I don’t know … I just did not write the introduction. Don’t ask me why. Oh, I have to write the concluding paragraph as well!

All of us humans face the above-mentioned issue. We continue to delay working on tasks until we are compelled to complete it due to some external force (mostly deadlines). Volunteers, being humans, face the same problem while volunteering.

Most volunteer’s day by day thoughts can be described as:




Today was good!

It was ok. What is there to eat?

I want to skip today. Or maybe I will go.

Today I will skip. Next time pakka
Next time pakka
Next time pakka
Next time pakka
SNEH What?

The following is my attempt to understand and solve the problem once and for all.

Bland formal boring documents start in 3…2…1 Tada! 

The high volunteer drop-out rate results in the following issues for the NGOs:

  • Waste of time and energy
  • Frustration
  • Illusion of having a large number of volunteers
  • Reduced motivation for other volunteers to continue

This post is a data dump of ideas/information that I collected from:

  • Using my past volunteering experience
  • Thinking about the problem myself
  • Discussing with others (Mostly friends who volunteered and discontinued)

Let us dive deeper into the problem. 

There are 3 categories of tasks we as humans partake in:

  • Tasks with least resistance
  • Tasks with instant gratification
  • Tasks with delayed gratification

Tasks with least resistance

Tasks that require less or no active work are part of this group. Daydreaming, sleeping etc. When was the last time you thought, ‘Eh! I hate to daydream’? I know. Never. This is because our brain and body love to be idle. We, humans, have evolved to save energy that can be used in emergencies. Performing these tasks are easy and require no will power most of the time.

A lazy cat

Tasks with instant gratification

Think about all the tasks that you can perform easily every day that require your active participation. Tasks like spending time on your phone facebooking, tweeting, playing video games, playing sports etc. Although these tasks often require us to not be idle, we still find it easy to be engrossed in it as it provides us with instant gratifications. Every few seconds you are on facebook you get a dopamine hit. Hits from getting ‘likes’ and receiving ‘comments’ from others etc.

Video games enable us to live in a virtual world where we frequently earn points, reach the next stage etc. which give us the same hit. Just like tasks with least resistance, tasks with instant gratifications often do not require much will power once you form a habit.


Tasks with delayed gratification

Think about all the tasks that you wish to perform everyday but you fail. Going to the guitar class every day, following a healthy lifestyle etc. I am sure you write down multiple new year resolutions only to leave it in a month or two. Tasks in this group require hard work from our side with no initial gratification. Unfortunately, volunteering falls under this category and thus volunteers, as humans, find it hard to continue. Let us try to dig deeper into the issue. 

Women tired of work

Stages a typical volunteer goes through:


Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily delaying something. We often tell ourselves ‘I want to work for an NGO’, ‘I wish to teach kids’, ‘I want to help others, ‘I want to join a dance class’ etc. but we often then say, ‘I will do it from tomorrow’ and the tomorrow never sees the light of the day. Everyone who wishes to be a volunteer stays at this stage until they hit a trigger.

A Trigger 

To break out of procrastination we often require a trigger. For volunteers the trigger can be a new inspiring movie, meeting someone who motivated them, their fast-approaching marriage which makes them realize they have done nothing worthwhile their whole life etc. Sometimes the realization of procrastination can be a trigger. The trigger always makes us dream big. We may wish to join an NGO and have an incredibly positive impact on a large number of people.


The trigger provides us with temporary motivation. Often at this stage, the volunteers join the NGO and continue for a while. At the initial stage of volunteering, most volunteers may feel they don’t seem to be providing any value, have no responsibility, are highly replaceable etc but their motivation takes them through for some time.


In a few months, volunteers realize it takes time to have an impact. They realize they have to first learn to be a good volunteer, they have to be patient, they have to work on tasks that may not seem to directly align with their aim etc. Without any reward in return and with depleted motivation, volunteers use discipline at this stage to continue. This is the toughest stage for a volunteer and with no motivation left most of them leave.

Habit loop

Once volunteers cross the ‘discipline’ stage, they learn to be patient and learn to continue to work hard. With time they achieve small success. This acts as a reward for their hard work which gives them dopamine hit just like facebooking provides with ‘likes’ and ‘comments’. This in-turn compels them to put further efforts leading to better rewards. The goal of each volunteer should be to reach this stage. 

Each stage can vary in its time-length depending on various factors. We can clearly see that crossing the stage of discipline is the toughest part of the journey for a volunteer and thus both volunteers and NGOs need to focus on increasing the length of the ‘motivation’ stage and the ‘habit loop’ stage and reducing the length of the ‘discipline’ stage. 

What can volunteers do to cross the discipline hurdle?

  • Aim for discipline

Most volunteers join an NGO with an aim to make drastic changes to society without having a realistic idea of the effort required to achieve it. In a few weeks, they may realize that their goal is further away than they initially expected which most often results in loss of motivation.

Instead, volunteers should aim to be disciplined. Aim to continue even if you do not seem to be providing any useful value. Go teach the kids everyday even if you think you are not providing any benefit to them. Promise yourself you will contribute x hours of your week every week. When you aim to be disciplined, the act of volunteering itself provides the dopamine hit. When you aim for impact, results are required apart from the act of volunteering for the dopamine hit.

  • Accept that motivation will reduce over time

The mere acceptance that motivation will reduce with time will help volunteers observe themselves drifting away. The observation can help them consciously take efforts to stop the drift and continue to work.

  • Use social hacks

Volunteers can use social hacks to make sure that the motivation stage remains longer. For e.g. they can form 4 member teams to track each other, they can create and share an excel sheet and record their own attendance.

What can an NGO do to solve the issue?

  • Accountability

Although counter-intuitive, accountability can help volunteers stay motivated. If a volunteer is required to go everyday to a school and teach kids without a goal they may soon lose interest. Instead, if the volunteer is assigned the task to increase the average score of the class by 5% every month, the volunteer will feel accountable. The teaching task will seem more challenging and can motivate the volunteer.

  • Visible deadlines

Concrete deadlines can help volunteers stay motivated. Deadlines that are publically visible will further push them to work on tasks and to complete them on time. Make sure each one knows what everyone else is working on.

  • Collaborative tasks

Tasks that do not require interactions with other volunteers are boring and thus should be scarcely assigned to volunteers. Each time volunteers work on such boring tasks they lose motivation to continue. Tasks that require collaboration can help volunteers form rapport among each other.

  • Automate easy work and let volunteers spend time in meaningful/tough tasks

When volunteers are assigned tasks that are challenging which require them to think and work hard it motivates them. No one loves to work on simple tasks (for e.g. filling excel sheet) and so it is important that such tasks are automated so that volunteers can work on more challenging and interesting problems (for e.g coming up with innovative ways to get new donors).

  • Discuss the roadmap of each volunteer with them

Discuss what kind of work they wish to do and what is expected from them. Try to create a 6-month roadmap with them. This can help them connect their daily tasks with their goal because of which they joined. 

  • Use Social reward

    • Have a visible leadership board for volunteers.
    • Assign score/stars to each volunteer.
    • Have awards functions every 2/6 months.
  • Easy-to-access bigger picture

Have whiteboard at the office showcasing progress. Note that not all data may denote progress. For e.g. ‘Kids scored 70% on average this year’ does not denote progress. Instead, plot a graph of average score by month/year to show progress.

  • Have informal social meetings

Choose a group of volunteers and bestow them the responsibility of volunteer bonding. They can take the volunteers for movies, play badminton etc. This will let the volunteers think of other volunteers as their friends and will reduce the will power required to continue to work for the NGO. It will also help the volunteer open up and share their thoughts and ideas.

  • Have teams with tangible goals for volunteers to join

Instead of requesting the volunteers to choose between joining health, education and nutrition group ask them to join teams that are solving specific problems. For e.g. the different teams can be:

  1. Team 1 with the focus on reducing the volunteer drop-out rate from 90% to 50%  in 3 month
  2. Team 2 with the focus on helping kids at Kalewadi branch to increase their average score from 70% to 85% in 6 months
  3. Team 3 with the focus on increasing the percentage of students from a locality from 40% to 70%


Ajay Nair


  1. Thanks Ajay. Very well written article. Absolutely clear guidelines for volunteers as well as NGO.
    This will be really helpful for better growth of SNEH foundation. Hope every volunteer will follow it. And as a part of SNEH , we people will also try to work in better way from our end.

  2. Great meaningfully written.While reading every line made us to think seriously about volunteering.
    Very motivating and encouraging. .

  3. Thanks for such wonderful post. I can relate to most of the points.

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