Maki studies the science behind volunteerism

CLOQUET - The art of volunteering was practically a way of life for the post-World War II generation, many of whom took their civic and religious responsibilities seriously enough to devote a considerable amount of time and energy to them.

CLOQUET - The art of volunteering was practically a way of life for the post-World War II generation, many of whom took their civic and religious responsibilities seriously enough to devote a considerable amount of time and energy to them.

In today's fast-paced, "24/7" world, however, there are some who feel that volunteers are a dying breed. And yet some, such as 2003 Cloquet High School graduate Alexander Maki, believe volunteerism is actually the wave of the future.

Maki was recently the recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, based not only on his past abilities and accomplishments but his potential to contribute to "strengthening the vitality of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise," according to his award letter.

Maki's intention - to investigate the motivations for getting involved in volunteer causes and ways to keep volunteers actively involved in doing what they do.

In order to be considered for an NSF graduate research fellowship, Maki had to propose a program of study encompassing two to four separate experiments that all explore one topic of interest to him.


"For my proposal," Maki explained, "I designed a number of potential studies that all investigate the issue of volunteerism, specifically trying to address how we can increase the longevity of volunteers in their specific positions."

Maki is currently in his first year of a master's program at the University of Minnesota, studying both psychology and philosophy. He admitted that it was his early years in Cloquet, however, that gave him the foundation for all that he's doing now.

As he was growing up, he spent much of his youth playing sports - basketball, baseball, golf and tennis - as well as hanging out with friends, playing video games, watching movies and reading.

When he got into his final few years of high school, however, he began to spend more time thinking about social issues.

"I think I was starting to come to terms with a lot of the problems that exist in communities around the country and the world," he reflected. "I started to think about what everyone, myself included, can do to solve some of these problems, and I started reading a bit in the areas of philosophy and psychology to look for explanations of why societal problems exist and proper ways to address them."

And so, when Maki got to the University of Minnesota Duluth, he decided to major in those very subjects and soon became involved in student groups that were concerned with a wide range of societal issues.

"I was lucky to have the chance to study for a semester in Perth, Australia," he related, "and during that time I took a social psychology course that focused on how social psychology could be used as a tool to address community problems. That course really opened up my eyes to new career possibilities and really provided an opportunity to merge a few of my passions."

From the time he was in high school, Maki had increasingly become involved in volunteer work. Besides being involved in student groups at the University of Minnesota Duluth, he also spent some time with his mother in Honduras doing humanitarian work in rural villages. When he was in Australia, he spent time working with Aboriginal Australian youth in the Outback, and after college, he spent a few years both serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer and actually working for an AmeriCorps program that aimed to help individuals with mental health disabilities and recent immigrants in their efforts to find community employment.


"Though AmeriCorps is a national service program," he explained, "it has quite a bit in common with most volunteer positions."

He said one of the primary reasons he became interested in social issues and volunteering is because of "the amazing people that I have been lucky to have in my life."

"First off, my family has attempted to instill in me values such as caring about my neighbor, despite any differences between myself and them," he related. "[They also taught me] I should not be afraid to struggle against apathy and that I should always try to make the world just a little bit better. My brother and sister have always been supportive of me in all of my endeavors, and my parents taught me that being compassionate is perhaps the most important personality trait to strive for."

Maki went on to point out how other people in his life have also been extremely influential.

"There are far too many to name," he said, "though I am grateful for each and every one of them. One person who comes to mind is a family friend and my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. [Don] Kroneman. He really emphasized the importance of having understanding and empathy for my classmates, and that really left a mark on me. I am also in debt to all of my friends in college who made me think a lot about social issues and supported me in efforts to do something about them."

At the moment, Maki is finishing up his first year as a graduate student in the social psychology program at the University of Minnesota.

"Social psychology," he explained, "is concerned with understanding how the presence of other people affects our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It's a very broad field that encompasses such topics as romantic relationships, attitudes, persuasion, interpersonal aggression, conformity, prejudice, health behavior and group dynamics."

Maki said his specific areas of interest are in the domains typically considered "pro-social" and "pro-environmental" behavior.


"A researcher in the pro-social behavior area might ask research questions such as, 'What factors influence whether or not an injured person on the street is helped?'" Maki gave as an example. "Pro-social behavior research explores not only helping in these types of emergency situations but also in long-term, planned situations such as volunteering or even care-giving.

"Pro-environmental behavior is a separate domain," he explained, "though it has some overlap. Pro-environmental behavior researchers ask things such as, 'What motivates people to engage in behaviors such as recycling or energy conservation, and how can we persuade people to engage in these behaviors more consistently?'"

Currently, Maki is involved in a number of projects that relate to both of these domains.

"Volunteers add a lot of support to numerous nonprofit and community organizations all around the country and the world," he said. "However, volunteers usually cannot just hit the ground running in their volunteer positions. Like most things in life, volunteers often need to be trained in the skills relative to that volunteer position. Though these organizations obviously get a lot of value from volunteers, training them takes a lot of valuable time and resources and unfortunately, volunteers do not always stick around as long as one might hope."

Maki went on to say this is not to place any blame on the volunteers themselves, however.

"If we could figure out ways to keep volunteers motivated and engaged over the long-term," he stated, "it may provide community organizations with a bit more of the reliability and support they need."

Maki said much of the research his adviser, Mark Snyder, and his colleagues have conducted is involved with investigating the motivations people have for getting involved in volunteer causes. Their research shows that typically there are a few basic motivations that most people have when they begin to get involved in volunteerism.

"By far, the most common motivations are something akin to, 'I want to volunteer because it is the right thing to do,' or 'I want to volunteer because I want to make a difference in my community,'" said Maki. "However, within a few months of volunteering, we've found that volunteer motivations tend to shift a little bit. Volunteers may not rank those same motivations quite as high as they used to, and instead they might also be motivated by the benefits that the volunteer experience has for them, such as providing them with a new social network, or making them feel good about who they are as a person. This shifting of motivations is not necessarily a positive or negative thing; it just tends to be the case."


Maki said the one thing that researchers currently don't understand, however, is just why this shift occurs, and his proposed research under the NSF graduate fellowship will explore that very thing.

"Basically, I want to find ways to motivate volunteers to continue with what they're doing," he concluded.

Though for Maki, there is still much to be done, he hopes to someday teach at a university, continue with his research, and possibly do some work at the policy level as well.

"I would also love to eventually find time to do some consulting with various nonprofits and government agencies," he added, "assisting them in their efforts to recruit and retain volunteers and helping them engage citizens to create a more sustainable world."

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