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Home arrow Communication arrow Leisure and the Motive to Volunteer: Theories of Serious, Casual, and Project-Based Leisure

Material volunteering

Here volunteers work with a special target of benefits, namely, artificial things and processes that may, however, demand attention flowing from natural causes (e.g., flood, lightning strike, earth quake). True, these people are usually also serving the community as they volunteer, but their efforts are generally not directed toward people, ideas, environmental concerns, and the like. It is possible that volunteer work with human-made things is the arena for the largest amount of project-based volunteering. Some material volunteers offer their skills on a one-off basis such as by working for Habitat for Humanity or, as a project, by donating their expertise to fix a plumbing or electrical problem at their church, prepare food for the needy on Thanksgiving Day, or help construct the set for a high school play. Examples of material volunteering as serious leisure include the following: regular volunteers who repair and restore furniture and clothing donated to the Salvation Army, prepare meals for the indigent, and do the book keeping for a nonprofit group. Volunteers providing water filters and electrical lighting in developing countries are engaging in career material volunteering, as are volunteer firefighters (when not rescuing people).

John Benoit and Kenneth Perkins (1997) exemplify research on this type in their studies of volunteer firefighters in North America. These two authors conducted a research project wherein they collected data over a fifteen-year period by means of interviews, self-administered surveys, and various observer roles (from full participant in a volunteer department to complete observer). The occasion for the greatest expression of serious leisure for a volunteer firefighter is the “working fire.” This occurs when a house or other valuable structure is ablaze, necessitating the mobilization of a large number of volunteers to actually extinguish the fire. Serious ground-cover fires (also called “brush fires”) can also be considered working fires, especially when they threaten homes or businesses.

In a subsequent communication the authors (Perkins and Benoit 2004) examine the paradoxical motivation of volunteer firefighters to engage for many years in an activity that can be monotonous and disagreeable and only infrequently exciting. The disagreeable aspects, their research revealed, include fund-raising (their departments are commonly poorly funded) and dealing with local politicians (most departments are rural). Yet, their research revealed that firefighter satisfaction is a long-term, protean state. That is, these participants pursue a serious leisure career. Thus once initial training leads to satisfaction with firefighting, many of them strive to learn and practice sector and incident command. Once the challenge of command is frustrated by the low incidence of fire, other managerial challenges arouse their interest, including teaching, purchasing major equipment, and working with politicians (need to develop political skills for this). Thus a career in volunteer firefighting typically starts with a material focus, but may expand later to working with people.

Mary Thompson (1997a) found much the same pattern in the six volunteer departments she studied in Western Canada. In addition, she found at the individual level of analysis that official records mask the amount of time volunteers contribute to principal operational activities. This renders invisible the hundreds of additional hours they may contribute to core support activities, philanthropic activities, and volunteering for related organizations. Though society in general tends to cast firefighters in the role of “hero" the volunteers themselves are uncomfortable with this label, preferring to characterize themselves as helpers. Because of their specialized training, knowledge, and trusted co-volunteers, volunteer firefighters do not view the risky part of their work in the same way non-firefighters do. In the wider community the adjectives “career” and “professional” firefighter are reserved for people for whom firefighting is an occupation. The idea that volunteering is serious leisure is incommensurate with this commonsense view.

Clearly, volunteer firefighters not only have material interests, but also contribute to their community. Here, too, they are both popular and material volunteers. Along these lines Yarnal and Dowler (2002/2003), through their research on such volunteers in Pennsylvania, learned about their value as social capital in the local community. Yet, the nature of this community contribution is “hazy,” owing to public confusion about who these people really are and what they do.

In fact, many volunteer involvements bridge two or more of the six types of interest (Stebbins 2007). One is pro bono legal service, wherein a lawyer works with both ideas and people. Volunteer consultants also work with these two, as do zoo and museum guides and volunteer teachers and instructors. Missionary work invariably centers on both ideas and people, but may also involve things (e.g., building a school, setting up a hospital). Furthermore, some missionary work could extend across at least three types such as when its goals include working with local people to establish a safe water site, which requires cleaning up the surrounding environment.

The possibility of mixed interest types also holds for volunteers serving in heritage sites and art and science museums. In these places some of them work strictly with things (e.g., in conservation, exhibitions, documentation, and research), whereas others serve visitors to these establishments (e.g., as attendants or guides). A few of them do both. Graham (2004) in her analysis of heritage volunteering learned that most volunteers here engage in artifact acquisition, research, and interpretation centered on “ad hoc” projects (project-based leisure). Only a minority were used routinely as attendants or guides, as career volunteers. Edwards (2005:23-24) found that females tended to prefer guiding, front of the house, and administrative activities, whereas males were more interested in research (on things).

Noreen Orr (2003) examined the fit of the idea of serious leisure with the practice of heritage and museum volunteering in Britain. She found the concept of social world especially valuable in that it includes the possibility of participants producing and consuming their own leisure. “However,” she notes, “this does not capture the complexity of the museum social world. For example, the sub-world of volunteers can be segmented further according to frequency of participation, skill levels and depth of knowledge about, and commitment to, the activity” (p. 133). It is also unclear from her reading of Stebbins’ statement of social world how the sub-world of volunteers intersects with the sub-world of Friends. The latter are often formally organized, some do find-raising, and some are volunteers. The idea of social world, especially Unruh’s conception of it, fails to consider power and conflict, which is evident in heritage and museum volunteering. Nonetheless, Stebbins (2001Ы8-9) does expand Unruh’s conception by observing that every social world has a parallel subculture consisting of norms, values, beliefs, moral principles, and the like that help account for “social stratification” within the social world.

In another study Orr (2005) surveyed 490 volunteers serving in 6 museums in England. Her goal was to examine the rewards of museum volunteering from the perspective of serious leisure. The most important rewards, as expressed by percentage of the sample, were “enjoyment” (97%), “satisfaction of seeing results” (87%), “sense of personal achievement” (85%), “learning about a subject which interests you” (84%), “meeting people” (83%), and “using your skills” (73%). Consistent with findings in other kinds of serious leisure, Orr found that, in the terminology of the SLP, self-gratification, self-actualization, and self-expression were the most important, whereas self-enrichment was least so.

Later, Orr (2006) observed that volunteers are the “ultimate frequent visitors” in the heritage sector. Furthermore, as the day visitor market for museums and heritage attractions declines, it is necessary to re-con- ceptualize the idea of “heritage visiting” from day visits to longer term connections with particular heritage attractions as seen in volunteering. She says that the concept of serious leisure is a way of reading museum volunteering as a leisure practice. More particularly, museum volunteering is a way of practicing heritage as leisure that is “self-generated,” wherein volunteers here actively construct their own identities. In addition, she describes how museum volunteers become part of the social world inhabited by those who know about heritage and history. Finally, Orr uses Stebbins’ Professional-Amateur-Public system of relationships (explained above) to analyze the power relations between museum professionals and volunteers. In these circumstances the boundaries of expertise and responsibility are sometimes vague and contentious.

A study by Stamer, Lerdall, and Guo (2008) took up the issue of the paucity of research on volunteer management in art museums and heritage attractions. Accordingly, one of the team visited eleven art museum volunteer programs worldwide, conducted surveys with their volunteers, and interviewed managers. Four main areas of volunteer programs were investigated: (1) volunteer recruitment, (2) retention, (3) development, and (4) general management. The results of the surveys and interviews with volunteers and managers showed three sets of promising practices that appear to increase the performance of volunteer programs. One is to build a community of volunteers. The second is to enhance volunteers’ learning experiences, whereas the third is to foster the self-management of volunteers. “Taken together, these practices offer evidence for the value of the ‘serious leisure’ concept in the theory and practice of volunteer management” (p. 203).

Deborah Edwards (2005) observes that general museums and art museums make a significant contribution to the tourism and leisure industries. In Australia they contribute to the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the communities and regions in which they are located. Still, museums are facing challenges, ones leading them to rethink their products and services, improve their economic position, and remain competitive in the marketplace. In this climate of change, the role of the volunteer is growing increasingly important to the operation of these museums. Be that as it may, why people choose to volunteer for these attractions is poorly understood. Edwards reports some initial findings from a wider study of volunteers in museums and art museums that was designed to explore volunteer motivation, expectations, values, and commitment. Factor analysis of the results revealed eight underlying dimensions to volunteer motivation for individuals in this field. She had three objectives: first, to determine the sustainable context in which museums and art museums operate; second, to present the initial findings of volunteer motivation; and third, to discuss the implications they have for sustainable volunteer management.

Holmes and Slater (2012) note that previous studies of membership associations reveal differences between passive and active participation, while arguing that both socio-demographic and motivational factors influence this pattern. Extant research, however, has relied on crosssectional survey data, which fail to capture the full picture of an individual’s memberships. The authors reported on a mixed-methods study of patterns of participation of voluntary associations’ members in the UK heritage sector. They found motivation to be the main influence on participation, and they identified as hobbyists a new group of members based on their motivation. These enthusiasts were primarily interested in the subject or site supported by their association. Hobbyists include respondents who have a life-long interest in the subject represented by the association. Some hobbyists describe themselves as “loners," even while they join associations because they facilitate pursuit of their interests.

Holmes (2006) addressed herself to a couple of the types of volunteer presented earlier in this book. Based on her interviews with volunteers and museum-sector managers, she concluded that it is common practice in museums across the world to volunteer and thereby gain experience hopefully leading to paid work. The motives of such volunteers clearly place them in Parker’s (1997) market volunteering category (see earlier). Nevertheless, the length of time spent volunteering and the range of different roles filled by volunteers at various museums could also be understood as career volunteering. The complexity of motives in this area becomes evident, says Holmes, when market volunteering may, once paid work has been secured, also lead to leisure volunteering, especially the career variety. We can add, now, that this kind of market volunteering may lead to devotee work (Stebbins 2004/2014) in the same activity.

Jennifer Hagan (2009), in a semi-structured interview study, examined the motives, perceptions, values, and experiences of a convenience sample of museum management, staff, and volunteers in the United Kingdom. She found that her respondents were fired by several motives: instrumental (to gain skills and experience for paid employment), purposive (to help others), social (to build networks, belong to a group, strengthen friendships), enhancement (to develop self), and avoidance (to escape issues at home, work, or in personal health). The museum studied by Hagan appeared to take no particular responsibility for fulfilling the social motive, even though it was the most prevalent among the volunteers.

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