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5 Behavioral Insights to Boost Winning Start’s Volunteer Retention and Motivation

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As part of our Winning Start initiative, Evidence Action’s Beta Incubator has spent the last five years working with the Government of Kenya to co-design and implement G-United, a government-led national youth volunteering program. G-United deploys youth volunteers to support struggling primary school students through ‘Teaching at the Right Level’ (TaRL), an evidence-based intervention that helps children develop foundational literacy and numeracy skills.

G-United has grown rapidly: from our first cohort of 150 volunteers in 2014, we’re now preparing to deploy 1,600 volunteers – and support over 40,000 children – in 2019. As the program continues to grow, cost-effective volunteer management is a key driver of impact at scale: we need to recruit large numbers of suitable volunteers to deliver the program; retain these volunteers for the entire service period, as high turnover decreases cost-effectiveness; and motivate and support these volunteers, as the greater the effectiveness and enthusiasm of the volunteer, the greater the learning gains for the child.

In a recent blog post, we shared what we’ve learnt about effective volunteer recruitment. In this post, we’ll share how we’ve incorporated low-cost behavioral interventions to help retain, motivate, and support volunteers throughout their service period.


Initially, the program’s volunteer management design was focused on monitoring: tracking volunteers’ attendance at schools, and their delivery of regular remedial support to struggling learners. We developed data collection processes around these metrics, and incorporated mobile technology into our monitoring platforms to elicit comprehensive, real-time data from volunteers. (Read more about what we learned and how we integrated tech-enabled monitoring into G-United in this blog.)

As we improved our data collection, it became clear that the program faced high levels of volunteer attrition throughout the service period, and we began working on improving retention post-deployment. To boost retention, we needed to ensure volunteers were appropriately motivated and incentivized to be part of the G-United program. We’ve since tested a variety of approaches to boost retention, such as streamlining implementation, enhancing the program’s professional development component, and testing new mechanisms to better ‘match’ volunteers to host communities. Consistent with Evidence Action’s “evidence first” value, one of our innovative strategies has been to incorporate low-cost approaches informed by behavioral sciences evidence, which we’ve designed and implemented with the help of the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics.


Over the last several years, we have integrated several behavioral insights throughout our program design in order to improve volunteer retention and motivation.

1. Financial incentives are an important, widely used tool to encourage and motivate behavior. However, behavioral economists have found that standard financial incentives, which may increase motivation in for-profit organizations, may actually diminish intrinsic motivations for prosocial behaviors, thus reducing performance. In severe cases, monetary incentives may even backfire and crowd out intrinsic prosocial motives.

Though G-United volunteers are provided with a stipend throughout their service period, this allowance is relatively small (KSh 6,000 or ~USD 60 per month); for most volunteers, this is sufficient to cover only basic needs. Feedback from our volunteers indicates that, though it’s an important enabler, the G-United stipend is not a key motivation for joining the program, and our qualitative data shows that the stipend does not in itself motivate performance (though not receiving it as scheduled can certainly diminish motivation).

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Recognizing top-performing counties on social media platforms taps into volunteers’ sense of healthy competition, while encouraging their prosocial motives.

2. Social reward and recognition is a powerful behavioral tool in improving worker effort and performance. In 2017, with guidance from the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, we started using the volunteer attendance and performance data collected through process monitoring to develop performance-oriented recognition. We started by gamifying volunteers’ performance, and then recognizing and celebrating well-performing counties at an aggregate level through our volunteer newsletter. By celebrating specific behaviors that are central to the success of the program (such as full attendance, regular reporting, and conducting regular remedial sessions), we have been able to incorporate a bit of friendly competition to motivate volunteers toward status and achievement.

We also informed volunteers from the start of service that upon successfully completing the volunteering service period, they would receive a certificate and recommendation letter from the Kenyan Ministry of Education as a formal recognition of their work. This letter – offered at limited cost to the government – offers a compelling incentive for participants to complete their service period.

3. Social norms interact with rewards and recognition. Importantly, while we recognize and celebrate high performance, we do not call out poor performance publicly; rather, by providing volunteers with private information about their own performance, and by sharing information about well-performing peers within the entire volunteering network, we leverage social norms to influence behavior. Informing individuals of how similar people compare to them (what behavioral scientists refer to as “descriptive social norms”), as well as how this performance is perceived by the community (known as “injunctive social norms”), has been shown to be effective in motivating a wide range of behavior, from increasing retirement savings, to reducing household water or energy consumption, to improving voter turnout. By informing volunteers of their performance, and allowing them to compare themselves to their peers, we’re able to tap into their desire for social “fit”, and foster their internal drive to perform.

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Above, youth connect with their co-volunteers on social networks, which are designed to create a sense of community at each stage of the recruitment and service period.

4. Network effects and social accountability can reinforce incentives and recognition to build commitment. G-United volunteers are sent to remote, rural villages, where they live with people that are ethnically, and often linguistically and religiously, different from their home communities. It would be easy for a young person in such a situation to feel isolated, and the Busara Center’s deep dive discussions with volunteers showed that those who built close peer groups within the program stayed more committed over time. We’ve therefore designed ways for volunteers to feel connected – to one another, and to a shared purpose. We started by sharing a weekly volunteer newsletter, gathering stories from volunteers, and using these stories to create motivational messaging. We’ve also strengthened networks and group effects through social media engagement: applicants are invited to join the G-United community early on, where they start to e-meet other candidates, and build a rapport and a sense of commitment to the program. Selected volunteers join county-level WhatsApp groups through which they can stay connected to their peers, share learnings, and foster a localized sense of community and kinship. By building the G-United network during the recruitment phase, volunteers become familiar with their peers and develop a latent commitment to their new community.

Since introducing gamified performance ranking, these local networks have encouraged volunteers’ collective efforts. As members of a subgroup, volunteers are responsible not just for their own performance, but for that of their county; by establishing social accountability for county performance (and coupling this with the public display of average county scores), we’re able to leverage individuals’ tendency to be incentivized by both internal motivations and a sense of accountability to one’s group.

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5. Explicit commitment – especially if shared with another person (an ‘external witness’) – increases

the likelihood of someone sticking with their initial intention, both in the short and long term. We’ve therefore designed an up-front commitment to the program: a ‘pledge’ in the G-United volunteer handbook, shown on the right, in which volunteers are asked to explicitly commit to what they should expect from the program, and what’s expected of them in turn.

Volunteers are asked to physically sign this pledge at the beginning of their service – by signing, they were making an explicit and externally-witnessed commitment. We’ve also built the terms of the pledge into the volunteer application form, thus aligning expectations between applicants and the program from day one.


From the time we introduced these low-cost devices, we have seen our retention rates increase from 66% in 2016 to 82% in 2018. [1] As we’re able to better retain volunteers, we’re increasing the number of children reached, and the program’s cost-effectiveness: this boost in retention resulted in the program reaching nearly 5,000 more students than it would have, had 2016 rates persisted.

In 2019, we’re continuing to explore how we can further improve volunteer performance through targeted “nudges” and individualized support. Now that we’ve successfully integrated behavioral insights to boost volunteers’ regular presence in school, which is critical to achieving our ultimate goal of improved literacy and numeracy outcomes, we are working to motivate and support volunteers to facilitate high-quality sessions for learners throughout the full service period.


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  1. Though we cannot attribute the increase to these changes, qualitative reports from volunteers suggest they’re responding well to these interventions. Since the introduction of these behavioral insights, our volunteer retention has improved during recruitment and through the deployment period.