Why do people start participating?

Involve’s Pathways through Participation research, with NCVO and the Institute for Volunteering Research, showed that participation starts when four elements are present:

  • personal motivation;
  • trigger;
  • resources, and;
  • opportunities.

1. Personal motivations

Participation is about individual motivations and personal preferences. People got involved in activities that had personal meaning and value and that connected with the people, interests and issues that they held dear. We identified six categories of meanings that motivated interviewees to participate:

  • helping others
  • developing relationships
  • exercising values and beliefs
  • having influence
  • for personal benefit
  • being part of something.

People often have multiple motivations for participating – some linked to a belief system or moral code, for example the ‘greater good’ – and others more self-interested. We found that people gain as well as give when they participate. This is not to suggest that participation lacks altruism, but rather that if there is not some mutual benefit then people’s involvement may falter. Interviewees often spoke about gaining from participating (in terms of friendship, satisfaction, influence, support, confidence, skills and recognition) as much as they gave (in terms of time, money, compassion, care and energy).

Individuals often participated in activities and groups because of the people they knew, liked, enjoyed being around and cared about. A desire to make and/or embed social connections, meet new people and combat isolation or loneliness led many people to get involved in a collective activity. The human desire to be with others in a joint endeavour, and the strength and quality of the relationships between fellow participants that grow through belonging to a group, came through vividly in our research.

We found that people’s values, beliefs and world views are closely linked to their experiences, social connections, cultural and social norms, and perceptions of community (of place and interest), as well as life spheres (the different elements that make up an individual’s life – for example, family and work). All these elements are integral to people’s identity and self-image and are crucial to understanding their motivations for participation.

2. Triggers

An individual’s conscious decision to participate is prompted by a trigger. We found that the main triggers for participation were:

  • an emotional reaction such as anger at a decision, a response to a threat, or wanting to improve something locally;
  • a personal life event such as a new relationship, retirement, ill health, moving area or having children, and
  • an external influence such as a natural disaster, hearing about something for the first time, or just being asked.

For some, these triggers are just a passing influence; for others these emerge as critical moments in their lives – turning points for their future as well as specific motivations for how they participate.

3. Resources

Our findings show that the drivers of participation (personal motivations and triggers) were tempered by people’s access to resources. We found three types of individual resources:

  • Practical resources including an individual’s time, money, access to transport and health. Critical moments, turning points or transitions in an individual’s life could dramatically change the practical resources they could draw upon.
  • Learnt resources including an individual’s skills, knowledge and experience. Interviewees sometimes referred to transferring these resources from other spheres of their life, such as work.
  • Felt resources including an individual’s confidence and sense of efficacy. Lack of confidence could prevent somebody from starting or taking an active role in participation, and many interviewees spoke about preferring to be involved in activities they knew they were capable of doing from past experience.

Personal relationships and social networks were also a critical resource, providing practical and emotional support to individuals to enable their participation. Our findings highlight the importance of strong bonds within groups (bonding social capital) as well as between groups (bridging social capital), to all areas of an individual’s life, including their participation. Wider social networks emerged as often being important to the success of an individual’s participation, providing access to resources, knowledge, connections and decision-makers.

4. Opportunities

Our research demonstrates the importance of institutions, organisations, groups, venues and events in creating an environment in which participation can flourish and in providing the environment, conditions and opportunities for an individual to translate their motivation to participate into action. Groups and organisations provided opportunities for involvement through linking people with others with similar interests and concerns, bringing together resources and providing support. Spaces or sites that served as multi-purpose hubs were highlighted as a particularly valuable resource as they provide spaces for groups to meet, support neighbourhood level social networks, and link different groups, organisations and activities. Local institutions and organisations (e.g. schools, universities, places of worship) also offer opportunities and support for participation.​