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Manager understanding volunteering
July 27, 2016

The Wikipedia Effect: Why People Volunteer

Why do people volunteer at organizations? Get details on what motivates your community and how to engage volunteers.

Wikipedia is one of the best examples of user generated content on a massive scale. Almost the entire site — one of the most used websites in the world — is content made by extremely dedicated volunteers. It’s the only way Wikipedia, a non-profit funded by donations, could survive — they depend on volunteers for their entire existence.But how do they do it? Why do these people from all over the world, who speak many different languages, spend large amounts of time and brainpower contributing to Wikipedia and fact-checking articles? Especially when they don’t even get individual recognition on the pages they helped put together!

Jana Gallus, a postdoctoral fellow for the Behavioral Insights Group at Harvard University, recently presented a study she conducted that dove into this question — what motivates Wikipedia volunteers?

The results she uncovered have big implications for any organization that relies on volunteers to do meaningful work.

A/B testing contributing editors in the Wikipedia community

It was a simple study. Jana Gallus worked with veteran German language Wikipedia editors to see what motivated new members to continually contribute to the largest online encyclopedia in the world.

Here’s how it went: some new editors received special badges when they started contributing, and others didn’t receive any recognition. They compared the two groups over time to see who were still active editors.

Gallus and her team randomly distributed the badge, called the “Edelweiss with Star” badge, to newcomers within their first month of becoming a German language Wikipedia editor. Along with the badge, recipients were featured on the Wikipedia page that explained the award.

The criteria for receiving the badge was purposefully vague — they wanted to randomly distribute it and then compare people who received the badge and people who didn’t get anything.

What did they discover?

More on Volunteers: Check out our ebook on the volunteer experience for more ways to engage members.

Community motivates for the long-term

They found retention was 20 percent higher after one month for editors who received the badge. Two months into the experiment, retention was 14 percent higher for editors who received the badge, suggesting there was a correlation between receiving the badge and staying active within Wikipedia.

Why did the “Edelweiss with Star” badge appear to retain new editors?

At first, this looks like an example of gamification and extrinsic motivation — give rewards to people when they do what you want. In other words, you want to recruit and retain editors, so you give new editors a badge for simply showing up in the hopes that their reward will make them want to stay.

But is it really a case for extrinsic motivation? Gallus came to a different conclusion.

New editors aren’t motivated just because they received a prize. They stay because of what the badge represents: community.

Editors who received the badge felt like they were part of an exclusive group and their contributions were important — which is an intrinsic motivator. One reason the results are interpreted as intrinsic motivation is because, out of everyone who received the badge, only six percent actually displayed it on their user page. If they wanted to brag or compete with other members, they probably would’ve displayed their badge. Instead, new editors saw it as a symbol that they were part of something bigger than themselves — that motivated them to continue editing Wikipedia articles.

What does this mean for community volunteers?

Volunteers are intrinsically motivated and contribute more when they feel like they’re part of a community. So, if your online community isn’t part of your volunteer engagement strategy, it should be.

Finding out how to motivate your members into action is critical for your community’s success — it’s what prompts people to contribute and engage with each other and your organization. Sometimes extrinsic motivators work — it all depends on what the prize is and how it’s handed out. But intrinsic motivators — being motivated from within and not from something external, like a badge or a gift card — usually builds long lasting engagement.

And, it turns out, being part of a community is a proven intrinsic reward.

Build community around your volunteers

If you already have an online community for your organization, begin finding ways to connect volunteers with each other through community. Make sure they know they’re valued and are a unique aspect of the organization. Skimm, the email newsletter, does an excellent job of motivating their ambassadors by creating a strong community. As a Skimm’bassador, you receive special perks, like access to a private LinkedIn group for networking.

Figure out what motivates your members — an exclusive group in your community, in-person happy hours, handwritten thank you notes, or a combination of all the above — and work it into your community strategy.

If your volunteers know how important they are to your organization and know their work is appreciated, you’ll be able to count on them more. Rather than one-off gifts, incorporate volunteerism into your community and make community a perk of volunteering.


Molly Talbert

Molly is the Content Marketing Manager at Asana. Previously, she did client services and social media for a small leadership development company. In her downtime, Molly reads through the internet, bikes, hikes and daydreams about her home state, New Mexico. She graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont where she studied the environment and writing, learned how to mountain bike through mud, and helped edit the student newspaper.