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A Focus on Relevance: Applying Andragogy to Volunteer Recruitment

A Focus on Relevance: Applying Andragogy to Volunteer Recruitment


As adult educators, we have long promoted volunteerism in our classrooms as a way for students to make a difference in their communities while developing their workplace skills and gaining career-relevant experience. Our incorporation of volunteerism is twofold: we advocate both as citizens who believe in civic responsibility and as educators applying the principles of andragogy (adult learning) in our classrooms. Because andragogy postulates that adults learn best when they find concepts relevant, our instruction goes beyond the subject at hand to address how the material will benefit students in their professional and personal lives. Articles that link andragogy to volunteerism tend to focus on applying the principles during volunteer training. We see the opportunity for a broader application of andragogy as a method to connect with prospective volunteers. While our experience with andragogy relates primarily to college students, these principles may also apply in a wider context, for example, in the recruitment of senior volunteers.  Volunteer managers can recruit more volunteers by applying andragogy principles, such as prior experience and relevance, when discussing volunteer opportunities or developing volunteer position descriptions.

Principles of Andragogy

Longtime readers of e-Volunteerism may be familiar with the concept of andragogy from articles such as Why I Learnt to Hate Icebreakers and Applying Adult Learning Principles to Enhance Volunteer Training. For those unfamiliar with the concept, andragogy is the theory developed by Malcom Knowles to explain how adults learn. Unlike children who expect to memorize concepts for future use and see their teachers as authority figures, adults learn best when instructors keep in mind six principles from Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2005):

  1. Learner’s Need to Know
    Adult learners need to understand how their learning will take place, what they are learning, and why they need to learn it. When this information is not provided, adult learners are less engaged and lack motivation. “Engaging adults as collaborative partners for learning satisfies their ‘need to know’ as well as appeals to their self-concept as independent learners” (p. 185).

  2. Self-Concept of the Learner
    Adult learners view themselves as independent and expect to be autonomous by “taking control of the goals and purposes of learning and assuming ownership of learning” (p.186). This autonomy often manifests in self-directed learning, particularly when the student has prior experience in the topic being taught. A lack of autonomy leads to frustration. “The biggest problems arise when adult learners want to have more independence in their learning but are denied that opportunity” (p. 189).

  3. Prior Experiences of the Learner
    Each adult learner possesses a unique framework for understanding the world. Referred to as schema, this framework is built from prior experience, learning, and acts as “a basis for assimilating new information” (p. 191). When new content aligns with existing schema, students find it easier to maintain interest and to remember the information.

  4. Readiness to Learn
    Adults’ readiness to learn is closely linked to their need to know. When information is relevant to their lives and necessary “to cope effectively with their real-life situations,” adults find it easier to learn (p. 67). The most successful instructors “anticipate and understand adults’ life situations and readiness for learning,” and adjust direction and support accordingly (p. 194).

  5. Orientation to Learning and Problem Solving
    As with the fourth principle, relevance is key to an adult student’s orientation to learning. Rather than focusing on a concept as one segment of an academic subject, adults approach learning with a desire to complete tasks and solve problems. “They learn new knowledge, understandings, skills, values, and attitudes most effectively when they are presented in the context of application to real-life situations” (p. 67).

  6. Motivation to Learn
    While adult learners are not resistant to external motivation (such as earning a degree to secure a well-paying job), internal factors like “increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, [and] quality of life” (p. 68) play a larger role in learners’ success. “The learning that adults value the most will be that which has personal value to them” (p. 200).  

Linking Andragogy and Volunteerism Research

A review of the existing literature shows andragogy principles align with the findings of many volunteerism studies. For example, Boezeman and Ellemers (2008) note prospective volunteers are drawn to organizations where they will feel respected and where they will receive emotional and task-specific support. Like adult learners, volunteer recruits want to understand expectations and, just as adult learners benefit from instructors who adjust support based on readiness to learn, recruits desire appropriate levels of support. Hager and Brudney (2011) state, “nonprofits have a difficult time recruiting volunteers when they do not value them” (p. 152). While there are many ways for nonprofits to demonstrate their appreciation, respecting volunteers’ autonomy and prior experiences is sure to make them feel valued. In their Volunteer Functions Inventory, Clary and Snyder (1999) identify six possible motivations for volunteering—values, understanding, enhancement, career, social, and protective—with the first four matching andragogy principles most closely.

The College Student’s Volunteer Journey

There certainly are challenges when recruiting volunteers or simply encouraging volunteerism in the college environment, but we employ strategies that inspire involvement. We were in agreement with and emboldened by the article, The Risk of Volunteerism Shortfalls: Are You Prepared?. Specifically, Jackson and Spinks (2018) state:  “Some will say that the days of long-term, regular volunteering are dying (if not already dead). We don’t agree” (para. 16). We also agree with Jackson and Spinks’(2018) idea of building a volunteer journey, of “tak[ing] that initial spark of micro-volunteering interest, nurtur[ing] it, fan[ning] the flames of that volunteer’s passion and enthusiasm for your cause, and work[ing] to deepen that commitment over time” (para. 16). We like to think of our classrooms as the start of our students’ volunteer journeys. Before a volunteer manager can fan our students’ sparks into flames, we must strike the flint in our classrooms.

For the most part, college students are eager to make their mark on the world. Whether they are traditional college students (i.e., post-secondary students, eighteen to twenty-two years old, attending full-time, recently graduated from high school) or adults entering college later in life, students have the energy and desire to help place their stamp on a principle. They have new ideas and a host of new connections that they bring to the table. Oftentimes students do not know where to begin. The classroom is a perfect arena to encourage the support of an idea through volunteerism.

Students often volunteer to gain hands-on work experience and to get a foot in the door for future employment. Developing learning opportunities where students gain the knowledge that will help propel their careers is enticing. The experience will not only aid in their future fields of study, it will also boost their resumes.

Students do not volunteer because others tell them to do so; they volunteer because it is framed in such a way that a specific cause speaks to their hearts. As educators, it is our goal to use the andragogy principles to motivate and encourage students by tying the classroom activities to why the material is relevant. When we stifle creativity and learning, student interest wanes. As self-directed learners, adult students require guidance (not direction), a purpose to their goals, and the freedom to bring their ideas to fruition.

Most volunteer opportunities involve working with people, which highlights the importance of soft skills learned in the classroom as transferrable skills. Skills such as teamwork, communication (both face-to face and online), problem solving, decision-making and time management may play a pivotal role in the success of any organization.   

As an example, a student in an IT program may volunteer to help develop a website or create a type of online presence that will drive donations. This not only provides a service to the organization but is also an excellent opportunity for the student to enhance communication skills, gain technical experience, and begin to create a database of resources.

Recruiting Beyond the Classroom

Our students arrive in class ready to learn; all we need to do is weave stories of volunteerism (including our own experiences as volunteers) into the existing curriculum. We admit students are a captive audience. How, then, do the principles of andragogy work when recruiting outside of the classroom? To continue the earlier metaphor, how is a volunteer manager supposed to find flint?

The first step to creating a spark among potential recruits is to shift the focus from the needs of the organization to the talents of the individual. For example, the representative for an organization might interact with potential volunteers at a meet and greet event. While the representative should share the organization’s mission statement and positive stories (as this helps the potential recruit align values and, therefore, feel motivated to volunteer), this information should only be the start of the conversation. The representative should take the interaction a step further by asking strategic questions. Why was the potential recruit interested in attending the event? What does the individual view as his or her strengths? What are some hobbies? Asking questions and, just as importantly, listening carefully to the answers demonstrates respect for the individual’s life experience. The representative can then use this knowledge to help the prospective volunteer connect his or her experience to openings within the organization. Similarly, the representative can present the opportunities as problems that need solving. Instead of simply saying, “Your experience as a line cook sounds like it would be a great fit for our pancake breakfast fundraiser,” the representative might say, “You have experience as a line cook. Last year’s pancake breakfast fundraiser was popular but people complained they had to wait too long. How do you think we can keep up with the demand? Would you be willing to help out with this event?”

The web is a great tool for recruiting volunteers with its expanded reach at a low cost, or no cost at all. However, it lacks the give-and-take of a face-to-face conversation. This means organizations must draft volunteer position descriptions carefully so potential volunteers understand how their unique contributions will benefit the organization. For example:

Imagine a parent resource center needing a volunteer to provide childcare for low-income parents who attend evening classes. A standard description for this position on the volunteer page of the web site might read, “Volunteers with early childhood credits needed to care for children while parents attend classes at the center. Tasks include supervising informal play for children ages 1-5, serving one snack, and tidying up.”

In contrast, a description built on andragogy principles might read, “Are you the person smiling at the cranky toddler in front of you in line at the store? Do you host the playdates for your children’s friends because you do not mind a house full of kindergarteners? Are you the aunt, uncle, or grandparent sitting on the floor at family gatherings, playing with the kids? We have many parents waiting to take our evening courses but they can only attend if we have a safe environment for their children. That is where you come in! Our childcare position is the perfect way to blend your study of early childhood education and love of children with your passion for making a difference.”

Volunteer managers do not need to incorporate all six andragogy principles into each conversation or position description.

As Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2005) note, “the andragogical model is a system of elements that can be adopted or adapted in whole or in part. . .In fact, an essential feature of andragogy is flexibility” (p. 146). The principles applied will vary based on the situation. Some positions may require vetting, such as background checks, or certifications, such as first aid. In these situations, the description might draw heavily from the “need to know” and “readiness to learn” principles, in order to help the prospective volunteer see the reasoning for the requirement.


As strong advocates of civic responsibility, we work to demonstrate and apply the principles of andragogy in our classrooms as they pertain to volunteerism. Knowles emphasizes that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005). We agree.

Therefore, in our view, it is our responsibility not only to provide the avenue for students to engage in volunteerism but also to explain its value to their lives and to society as a whole. In order to engage this subset of the population (college students),  organizations must first recruit them to their cause. Once organizations understand the meaningfulness of concepts such as prior experience and relevance, they will discover the wealth of talent that lies within the college student. Once engaged, students will not simply be a generation of micro-volunteers with short-term commitments; they will become long-term volunteers that can be the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations.


Ash, S.L. & Clayton, P.H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 25-48. Retrieved from:…

Boezeman, E. J., & Ellemers, N. (2008). Volunteer recruitment: The role of organizational support and anticipated respect in non-volunteers' attraction to charitable volunteer organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(5), 1013-1026. doi:

Clary, E. G., & Snyder, M. (1999). The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(5), 156-159. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00037

Hager, M. A., & Brudney, J. L. (2011). Problems recruiting volunteers: Nature versus nurture. Nonprofit Management & Leadership22(2), 137–157.

Jackson, R. & Spink, E.R. (2018). The Risk of Volunteerism Shortfalls: Are You Prepared?. e-Volunteerism, XIX(1).

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., III, & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Shields, P. O. (2009). Young adult volunteers: Recruitment appeals and other marketing considerations. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing21(2), 139–159.

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