Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Tatiana Patino- Action Research

Literature Review

Though I have not found any research on the involvement of college students in afterschool programs specifically, I have found literature on what motivates students to become involved in volunteer work more broadly. I believe the literature I have chosen to focus on will provide me with general themes regarding what motivates students to join service-based organizations and what factors prevent students from joining or from continuing to participate in service-based organizations. Using the concepts from this literature, I will be able to analyze how prevalent these themes are within Keylatch Afterschool’s volunteers and whether Keylatch volunteers follow general trends regarding what motivates them to serve.

I am basing my study on three articles that present various explanations for the most important factors in a volunteer’s decision to do service work and one article that describes the importance of mattering for retention in an organization. The articles titled “College Students' Volunteering: Factors Related to Current Volunteering,” “The Motivation To Volunteer,” and “Attributes Influencing College Students’ Participation in Volunteering: A conjoint analysis” all discussed the roles of student volunteers in service organizations and the factors that encourage students to volunteer. The article “Marginality and Mattering: Key Issues in Building Community” emphasized the importance of making sure volunteers feel like they matter in order to increase retention in an organization. This literature has provided me with language with which to identify and categorize my volunteers’ motivations to participate in Keylatch and suggestions on ways to fight the high rates of attrition.

Moore et al’s study divided motivations into values, understanding (new learning experience), social, career, protective (“protect oneself from guilt over being more fortunate than others”), and enhancement (“to experience positive affect”) (Moore et al 388). Armed with this language, I was able to analyze my volunteers’ responses to the survey question “Why did you join Keylatch?” through this lens. The responses to the survey questioned showed repeated mention of wanting to give back to the community and to connect with other college students, which leads to the conclusion Harvard and Wellesley students are driven mainly by social and enhancement motivators. Fifty percent of respondents mentioned an interest in pursuing education. This could make preparing for their career a possible motivation. However, no respondent was explicit in citing “career goals” as a motivation for their participation in Keylatch.

I looked to Gage and Thapa’s “Volunteer Motivations and Constraints Among College Students” to understand Keylatches’ high turnover rate. Gage and Thapa discussed in their article how “as the respondent perceives more structural constraints (lack of time, money, transportation, etc.), they are less motivated by values and understanding” (Gage and Thapa 424). They continued this thought by writing “values and understanding motives may not be enough on their own to overcome certain structural constraints” (Gage and Thapa 425). This explanation is congruent with the responses former Keylatch volunteers gave for why they stopped participating in the program. The former Keylatch tutors that responded to the survey cited the “hefty commute” and “conflicting times” as the reason they stopped volunteering with Keylatch.

Gage and Thapa did, however, provide a solution to the problem of volunteers dropping out. Their study shows that “students who perceive a higher level of intrapersonal constraints may rely on the support of the people around them to volunteer” (Gage and Thapa 425). This means that students who feel like they are a part of a community and like their service work is also a social experience are more likely to stay in their role. Gage and Thapa’s advice is that “programs should highlight the importance of the program and offer awards or recognition to the volunteers” in order to “serve the need for peer support... and other social benefits” (Gage and Thapa 425). This advice is a crucial framework for my action research as I am presenting the importance of fostering a sense of community within Keylatch as the main way for me to encourage volunteer retention.

Schlossberg’s research supports the idea that creating a feeling of community is essential in order to increase retention. In his article, Schlossberg focuses on the importance of making sure that students feel like they matter. He writes that “joining a campus student organization can evoke feelings of marginality. It can take time for students to feel central to a group” (Schlossberg 8). Due to the fact that Keylatch has a high turnover rate, most volunteers at any given time are first-time tutors. This means that volunteers are constantly wondering “are we a part of things; do we belong; are we central or marginal? Do we make a difference” (Schlossberg 7). Though Schlossberg was looking at college campuses rather than at service organizations, his observations are constructive for the plan of action necessary to increase volunteer retention. Schlossberg writes, “Institutions that focus on mattering... will be more successful in creating campuses where students are motivated to learn, where their retention is high, and ultimately, where their institutional loyalty for the short and long-term is ensured.” (Schlossberg 14). This article has led me to believe that in order to effectively build community, I have to ensure that volunteers feel like they belong in Keylatch and like their time and efforts are integral to the success of the program.

Unlike the other three studies, Lee and Won in their study found that “an organization’s mission is the most important determinant of their participation, followed by travel distance, reference groups, flexibility, and task types” (Lee and Won 149). Their findings also suggest that “the marketing strategies that are targeted to students who live within 5 miles from the volunteering cite and that use existing volunteers as recruiters for future volunteers will be useful in attracting college students. (Lee Won 159). I will be using this information as I develop my recruiting strategy in my action research. 

An analysis of the readings on my topic has provided me with a language and a framework that I have been able to use throughout my own study of what motivates Harvard and Wellesley volunteers to join Keylatch and of what factors cause these students to stop volunteering with the program. The combination of the motivators discussed in these four readings led me to break down my blueprint for action into five different parts: recruitment, fighting restraints, community building, you matter, and perks.

For the recruitment strategies, I chose to take advantage of Lee and Won’s theory of mission as the main motivator for service to focus my outreach on Latinx and Black students in order to emphasize the need for role models who look like the kids we are serving. The history of the program is grounded on identity and for that reason would benefit from students who share the kids’ identity. I also used Moore et al’s breakdown of motivations, specifically the career motivation, to create an emphasis on the opportunity to gain experience working with children and to be a part of a strong alumni network when recruiting.

For countering constraints, I focused on Gage and Thapa’s explanations of what causes volunteers to step away from their roles. Their emphasis on making service accessible and easy aligned with the feedback from our volunteers. I then used this information to design ways in which Keylatch could make the commute and the commitment easier for the volunteers.

Lastly, when designing the sections on community and belonging, I looked at the studies by Moore et al and Schlossberg, which both emphasized the importance of making volunteers feel essential to the program and of making Keylatch a social and not just an altruistic experience. Schlossberg reminded me of what it feels like to be new to an organization that has been running for decades, the way Keylatch has. Especially on the days that the kids are acting up, there is not much that persuades a new volunteer to come back. For that reason, I plan on planning outings that will allow volunteers to build friendship, and I will place a greater emphasis on showing our volunteers how much we appreciate them.



Research Design

I am looking to understand what motivates Harvard and Wellesley students to participate in afterschool programs despite the significant time commitment. Though it is easy to assume that altruistic reasons are at the core of what motivates Harvard and Wellesley students to join afterschool programs like Keylatch, I would like to understand what keeps these students volunteering even on the days where the kids in the program are difficult and a simple cost-benefit analysis makes it seems as though the “good” that is being achieved through the service work is not worth the significant time investment.

I want to focus on this study because Keylatch Afterschool is having difficulty with volunteer recruitment and volunteer retention. The shortage of volunteers is affecting the quality of our program as we are not able to provide our students with individualized attention. Having a better understanding of what motivates students to volunteer their time, especially to a program that requires consistency and a significant time commitment, will allow me to approach next year’s recruitment process in a way that is more methodical and that is more effective at attracting volunteers.

Unlike other forms of volunteering, afterschool programs can be disheartening at times because the students are very fickle. One day they might tell you how much they love coming to afterschool and the next day they tell you that they hate afterschool and that they never want to come back. For this reason, it is not always easy to feel as though your work in afterschool is actually constructive. I am interested not only in what factors influence a volunteer’s initial decision to join an afterschool program but also in what motivates volunteers to continue volunteering throughout multiple semesters.

Overall, the goal is to find out what motivates Harvard and Wellesley students to volunteer in afterschool programs like Keylatch. As well as to find out what factors play a part in a volunteer choosing to remain a part of the program for multiple semesters. Lastly, I would like to find out what factors are influencing volunteer’s decisions to quit the program and whether there is anything the organization can do to prevent the volunteers from quitting. Together, the answers to these questions will allow me to better meet the needs of my volunteers and to approach the recruitment process in a way that appeals to more Harvard and Wellesley students.

In my action research, I will be interviewing the directors of Mission Hill Afterschool, which is a PBHA afterschool program with successful volunteer recruitment, to understand what approaches they are using to encourage college students to sign up to volunteer with the program. Furthermore, I will be taking note of what strategies they are using to foster a sense of community within their organization. In addition to these interviews, I will be interviewing my co-director who has been a director of Keylatch for the last seven semesters. Her input on what methods have been effective throughout the years will be helpful for me understand how to best move forward with volunteer recruitment and retention. Lastly, I will be analyzing a survey sent out to current and former volunteers on their motivations for participating in Keylatch.

The results of this study will be helpful not only for my own program but also for volunteer-based programs across Harvard campus. Right now, service-based organizations are struggling to recruit volunteers because many students often prefer to join organizations that are either more prestigious or that will help them when applying to competitive post-graduate programs. An understanding of what motivates Harvard students to do service can help organizations cater to the needs of Harvard students and in that way increase involvement in service-based organizations.

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