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Juliet Wakefield: What psychological rewards can religious volunteers get from their work?

03 Aug 2021 Voices

Juliet Wakefield from Nottingham Trent University summarises the findings of recent research on impact of religion on volunteering and creating a sense of identity

Acts of volunteering bring important economic and social benefits to communities. However, research also highlights the psychological benefits that volunteering can create for those who volunteer, including enhanced mental health. 

Given these benefits, psychologists have attempted to understand what is likely to motivate somebody to volunteer, and to continue to volunteer for extended periods. While much of this research focuses on the volunteer as an individual, and how aspects such as personality traits might influence volunteering behaviour, some researchers have addressed the question from a different perspective. 

Importantly, one thing that is often overlooked about volunteering is that it frequently occurs within groups, such as organisations, teams, or communities. Some social psychologists argue that while we each have a personal identity, which is comprised of our personality traits, likes, dislikes, and so on, we also have a social identity, which is comprised of the groups we belong to. 

These social psychologists argue that our group memberships affect our thinking and our behaviour, and that they can also affect our wellbeing, because fellow group members can provide us with the support we need to cope with stress. 

From this perspective, a volunteer’s group memberships are important to study if we want to understand more about what predicts sustained volunteering, as well as volunteering’s wellbeing-related benefits. 

Volunteers’ motivations shaped by their sense of community 

One of the key group memberships for a volunteer is likely to be their voluntary group, and a recent study which involved researchers interviewing volunteers showed that volunteers gain support and motivation from their close psychological connections to their volunteering group. 

The local community can also be an important group for volunteers: my research team and I recently published a paper showing that volunteers’ motivations for their voluntary work were shaped by their sense of belonging to their communities. We also showed that participants who volunteered more tended to feel more bonded to their communities, which ultimately was associated with higher levels of wellbeing for these volunteers. 

In sum, there is growing evidence highlighting the important role played by volunteers’ group memberships in predicting their volunteering motivations and their wellbeing. 

Rules and values of group membership

One interesting aspect of groups is that they each have their own set of norms, which are rules and values that members should uphold. Group members like to behave in ways that are consistent with the group’s norms, because it shows that they are a ‘good’ group member. 

With this in mind, my research team and I recently asked a new question: could volunteering benefit volunteers because it allows them to behave in ways which display their membership of a valued group to other people? 

In particular, we wanted to explore whether volunteering with a religiously-motivated volunteering organisation (such as the Salvation Army) allowed religious people to display their membership of their religious group, and whether this had psychological benefits for volunteers. 

Link between religion and volunteering 

We expected that religious volunteers who feel a strong sense of belonging to their religiously-motivated voluntary group would be particularly likely to feel that they are able to display their religious group membership though their volunteering. 

We predicted this because it is the group members who feel the strongest sense of identification with the group who are most likely to behave in ways that are consistent with the group’s norms, and the norms of a religiously-motivated voluntary group are likely to be perceived as highly consistent with the norms of most (if not all) religious groups (e.g., selfless giving). 

So, this means that by behaving in ways that make them a ‘good’ member of their religiously-motivated voluntary group, volunteers can also display their membership of their religious group to other people. Previous research has shown that being able to display a valued identity to others can boost feelings of wellbeing, so we expected that volunteers who felt able to display their religious group membership through their volunteering would experience wellbeing-related benefits. 

To test these predictions, we asked people who volunteer with religiously-motivated organisations (e.g., Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, Guru Nanak's Mission, etc.) to complete an online survey at two time-points, three months apart. 

Our data supported our predictions: highly religious participants who felt a strong sense of belonging to their voluntary organisation felt that they were more able to display their religious identity through their voluntary work. In turn, this ability to display their religious identity through their voluntary work predicted better mental health and a stronger sense of volunteer engagement over time.

Religious volunteers should be able to enact their identity through volunteering 

This work is important to people who run and volunteer for religiously-motivated voluntary organisations. 

It suggests that in order to facilitate volunteer engagement and well-being, religiously-motivated voluntary organisations should ensure that the religious people who volunteer for them feel able to enact their religious identity through their voluntary work. 

This could involve the organisation taking time to make the link between the voluntary work and religious identity during volunteer training, and reminding religious volunteers of this link as they carry out their day-to-day duties. 

It could also involve sessions where religious volunteers study passages in their holy book/scriptures which talk about the value of volunteering, or share in prayer/meditation together where they reflect on the religious meaning of their voluntary work. 

Less religious volunteers

However, our work suggests that it is also important for religiously-motivated voluntary organisations to explicitly consider the wellbeing and engagement of their low-religiosity volunteers. 

Our results indicated that there was no relationship between voluntary group identification and sense of religious identity enactment for these individuals, meaning that this is not a path through which low-religiosity volunteers can obtain wellbeing and engagement-related benefits.

With this in mind, voluntary organisations need to think about the types of group identities that low-religiosity volunteers (and volunteers without any religious faith) may seek to enact through their voluntary work (e.g., their human identity, their identity as a member of their local community, their identity as a member of a political party, etc.) and facilitate them in developing this sense of enactment.

In sum, I hope that our research highlights the important benefits that can be obtained through volunteering, and helps to encourage people who run volunteering organisations to think creatively about how to allow people to display their valued identities while they engage in voluntary work.

Dr. Juliet Wakefield is a senior lecturer in social psychology at Nottingham Trent University, UK. Her research explores the implications of group memberships for people’s everyday lives

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