Motivational tactics and techniques for largely volunteer - based organizations

Benjamin Sattler and Davendra Chatterpaul

The Pennsylvania State University

Managing an organization largely comprised of volunteers presents many challenges, as well as uncertainties. Often times, many of the management techniques used in the work place are either not applicable or simply not available when managing a volunteer group. The Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team (PSU AVT), an organization of students designing and fabricating hybrid vehicles, tested various techniques to motivate student volunteers to achieve an efficient and productive organization. After one year, the team has identified three main techniques, which can be applied to an organization comprised of volunteers. These three main topics are creating exterior motivational factors, setting clear goals, and creating non-financial incentives. In addition, the team will report how these tactics may affect an organization, as well as key points where the team struggled.


The Pennsylvania State University Advanced Vehicle Team (PSU AVT) is a student organization comprised of undergraduate and graduate students of all disciplines working to design hybrid vehicles. Since 1988, the team has competed in Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (AVTCs) organized by Argonne National Laboratories and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Since the team's inception, over 550 students have been a part of the team, representing eleven of the eighteen colleges at the university. In the past decade, one of the key issues identified by the PSU AVT is motivating the students on the team to function in an efficient and effective manner.

The PSU AVT was selected to be a part of the most recent AVTC, EcoCAR 3, along with 15 other universities throughout North America. For EcoCAR 3, the sixteen competing schools will design and build a hybrid-electric 2016 Chevrolet Camaro over the course of four years. The first year has a focus on project management, vehicle design, as well as modeling and simulation. The second year focuses on bench testing and implementation. Year 3 consists of integration and refinement, and year 4 revolves around business, communications, and marketing. By the end of the four years, teams are expected to have a functioning hybrid vehicle that is safe, exceeds consumer expectations, reduces the environmental impact of the vehicle, and maintains the performance capabilities of the stock Camaro.

During the first year of the EcoCAR 3 competition, the PSU AVT decided to focus on improving the organization of the team by incorporating a project management division of the team, which would dedicate time to enhancing the efficiency of the team. Through this effort, the team evaluated successful techniques for motivating volunteer-based organizations. The team first needed to understand why some of the common practices used in various industries and business are not always applicable to groups comprised of volunteers. From there, various techniques were tested, with the most successful being presented. The team found having exterior motivational factors, setting clear goals, and creating non-financial incentives are crucial for managing a volunteer base successfully.

Evaluating Traditional Techniques

Managing a successful organization requires specifically designed objectives and goals. The techniques used to manage different organizations will vary depending on the structure and the goals of the organization. Since the PSU AVT depends primarily on volunteers, common techniques cannot be used because there are no traditional relationships and most importantly, no traditional incentives.

Surrounding every organization lays a very important financial outlook. The PSU AVT, being a university organization, offers no financial incentives to the volunteers. Accompanying the lack of financial hierarchy is a lack of member motivation to accomplish tasks. Since there is no traditional promotion system, members may feel less compelled to complete deliverables. Perhaps one of the major consequences of not having any financial incentive surrounds job commitment. Being a volunteer organization, the PSU AVT may struggle to hold members committed to individual work and to the organizational goals. The team strives to combat this seemingly crippling issue by appealing to members who enjoy working and to provide a friendly, yet productive environment for everyone. For a member to join the team and show interest, he or she must have some inherent affinity for the work done by the organization. This means that the organization will benefit from having such a member.

Following no financial incentives, common project management techniques cannot be used because members receive no timely rewards such as a pay raise and career promotions. Thus, the leader of the organization has no leverage on members of the team; however, the Penn State team does not depend on having leverage over members in order to accomplish deliverables. The team strives to appeal to the moral aspect of volunteering and highlight external motivation factors, which is talked about later in this study. Through appealing to the moral act of devoting time and effort, the team pushes every member to be proud of the work being accomplished, both on an individual scale and on an organizational level.

Staying with a common hierarchal structure, the Penn State team cannot employ any related theories. Following with the claim of not having traditional leverage, team members are less likely to have inherent respect for team leaders. The Advanced Vehicle team offers no financial incentive; however, leaders earn the respect of the team members through a carefully crafted social hierarchy. By providing social, moral, and emotional support, the team leaders make every member feel comfortable and push them to accomplish every task. The team strays from the common organizational structure and provides a friendly environment, which harbors growth both educationally and personally.

Lastly, considering no traditional organizational leverage, the team cannot employ the common methods to reprimand members for not getting tasks accomplished. Instead of focusing on providing a consequence for those who do not perform, the team strives to place attention on those who work diligently. Keeping a positive momentum, the team looks to reward members and acknowledge his or her accomplishments, instead of focusing on those who fail to meet team deliverables.

Exterior Motivational Factors

Creating external motivation factors is an essential task that will not only serve as a potential incentive, but also serve to continuously inspire the members of the organization to put forth his or her best work. Other than fiscal motivation for completing a task, the team looked toward external, non-monetary sources of motivation. Serving as a source of motivation to join the Advanced Vehicle Team, Penn State offers both a 1-credit class, which stands as an introductory course to the team, as well as a 3-credit upper level design course that teaches both technical and social skills. University students are more likely to dedicate time to an organization knowing that, in addition to receiving valuable knowledge, they also receive college credits counting toward the required courses. By offering a class to complement the team, more attention is drawn to the Advanced Vehicle Team; in-fact, in the most recent academic year, the team saw an increase in the number of students enrolled in this introductory course. While not all organizations are based on student volunteers, it may be possible to exploit similar techniques. Organizations may look to local colleges to partner with or experiment with open online courses in the community.

The introductory course also offers a source of knowledge for those who are enthusiastic about learning. Motivation not only stems from tangible objects, but also sources like knowledge. One of the leading external motivators captivating the Advanced Vehicle Team is the genuine urge to gain valuable knowledge that will aid the organization members in finding the perfect job. Working closely with professors and industry professionals, members of the Advanced Vehicle Team get to explore specific fields of interest and gain valuable insight into organizations and ideas. Not all knowledge transferred surrounds a technical aspect. Members of the team develop essential social skills that teach efficient verbal and written communication. Through the EcoCAR 3 competition, the team is required to construct milestone presentations and deliver them to a panel of judges. This process of preparing for such deliverables gives the volunteer a sense of communicating effectively and working as an organization to accomplish a greater goal. Through these deliverables, organization members also become more self-aware, finding new strengths and weaknesses along the way.

Exposure to industry experts and education professionals is essential to building a strong network of professional affiliates. Volunteers of the organization are exposed to the world of industry professionals and his or her specific field of interest; thus, building a valuable network of individuals essential to future employment. The Advanced Vehicle Team works closely with the General Motors Company and members often receive employment opportunities stemming from organization involvement. In addition, the team has had a 100% job placement rate for its graduating students. These jobs range from the automotive industry, to aerospace, to computer software, as well as business and communication firms. This is a huge incentive and a bigger external motivator for volunteer members, especially those of the college demographic. Through social interaction with numerous influencers, members are motivated to further explore his or her desired field of study.

Additional motivation stems from the organization facilities and its availability to the members of the team. The team has a dedicated work area and garage outfitted with essential tools and equipment that members will likely find in industry. The Advanced Vehicle Team strives to provide the latest technology and tools, as well as an education program of how to use them. By providing state of the art technology such as up to date garage equipment and computer software, the team strives to not only please the current members, but to also attract new students who share the similar interest.

Perhaps the oldest and most influential external motivator in a college setting is food and essential tangibles. With tough economic times, students and volunteers alike are drawn to giveaway items. The PSU AVT has great success with volunteers and other organization members through providing appetizing eatables at various events. In addition to food, other secondary items such as water bottles and pens attract valuable attention. An important point to note however, is the genuine motivation of volunteers over the lustful urge for free items.

Setting Clear Goals

The PSU AVT realized early on that it is easy for new volunteers to become scared at the vastness of a project. While a seasoned veteran of the program may understand the works of each portion of the organization, and the project may not seem so large, this is certainly not the case for a first-time volunteer. To alleviate this situation, the PSU AVT worked hard to ensure the goals of the team were clear and each member of the team has a clear understanding of his or her role. To achieve this, the team utilized a strong mission and vision statement, effective time management, and clearly structured leadership.

A strong mission and vision statement are critical in creating unity within an organization and help to drive lower level tasking. These two statements should help all members of the organization understand why everyone is grouped together and what everyone is working toward. By having the mission and vision integrated well into the fabric of the team, new and old members are consistently reminded why the organization exists. This will also help volunteers establish his or her own ideas that can help the organization be successful.

A project management plan that includes specific tasks helps an organization to function efficiently. While having items for the organization to accomplish is important, more imperative is showing how each task fits into the big picture and helps the group achieve its mission. This not only gives members things to do and help to build commitment, but it also shows how each task affects the overall status of the project as why it is important. The PSU AVT found when a member knows why a task is being completed and how it affects the rest of the items needing to be finished, the person feels more responsible for completing the task and owning it.

When members of the team know who to go to for help and have established leaders to bring problems to and bounce ideas off of, work flows more efficiently and effectively. In addition, when new members join the organization, there is a core group of leaders there for advice. These leaders need to make sure they thoroughly understand the mission, every task that needs to be completed, and most importantly, pass that information on to the general body of the organization.

Non-Financial Incentives

The Advanced Vehicle Team, after careful preparation, came up with a list of non-financial incentives that are extremely appealing to members. These incentives serve to not only motivate members, but also attract new students to the organization. While these are similar to the exterior motivational factors, these non-financial incentives focus less on personal development and more on creating a desire to work. The most important tactics used by the PSU AVT include creating a great workspace for students, as well as providing social and enjoyable activities outside of the mission of the organization.

The Penn State Advanced Vehicle Team has a member space, which provides a productive environment that inspires members to clear his or her mind and socialize. Although hard work is appreciated, members are expected to take a break and socialize with other members. Within this teamwork space, volunteers have access to white boards, collaboration tables, individual work stations, computers, as well as areas dedicated to relaxation. The team provides a refrigerator for members to store food and beverages, as well as a small kitchen to prepare food. The goal is to create a space where volunteers want to work. The PSU AVT found that if it is able to draw its members to the location of the organization, it finds greater success. As the team is based on a college campus, having a great place for students to study and do other work is key. Encouraging students to do personal work in the team's workspace was incredibly successful. Students were around more often and were available more often when fellow team members needed their help. In addition, by letting members use team resources such as white boards and computers, volunteers felt a stronger tie and commitment to the organization over time.

Aside from the tangible motivators, the Penn State team benefits greatly from social events and team gatherings. This can be as simple as a team dinner where members contribute food, to a formal event open to the public. Organizing activities for the members of the organization should cover a range of activities to ensure members of different interests feel included. The PSU AVT held events of an athletic and physical nature, as well as ones with a focus on relaxing to play to different members’ comforts. The type of events the team found most successful were competitive in nature, as these activities helped to cultivate a sense of team work and bonding. Finding another organization to partner with for a friendly, competitive rivalry can help build a sense of teamwork immensely.


The PSU AVT tested various methods for motivating volunteers during the first year of the EcoCAR 3 competition. While the team consists of undergraduate and graduate student volunteers, the techniques utilized can be implemented by any organization comprised of largely volunteers. This may be applicable to non-profit organizations, community service groups, or other student-based organizations.

Throughout an over two decade history, the PSU AVT has struggled to keep the student volunteers working hard and motived throughout the entire year. In the first year of the EcoCAR 3 competition, the PSU AVT worked to implement new methods for encouraging hard and consistent work. In the past year, the three most successful techniques found include finding exterior factors, setting clear communication pathways and goals, and creating non-financial incentives. By implementing these tactics, the team found greater success in having an even workflow and an effective and efficient organization.

The PSU AVT would like to thank the Pennsylvania State University, the College of Engineering, The Larson Institute, Argonne National Laboratories, and the U.S. Department of Energy for their generous contributions to the team and AVTCs. Without their support, the team would not be able to exist and find success.

© 2015, Benjamin J. Sattler and Davendra Chatterpaul
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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