With the number of natural disasters requiring emergency assistance increasing in 2014, the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC awarded UOW researchers a grant to help improve the retention of the volunteer workforce.

The research led to the development of the Inspire, Retain, Engage program which is being utilised by emergency services agencies across Australia. 

In 2012, Associate Professor Michael Jones was asked to analyse the low retention rate of volunteers in an emergency services agency, and to present his findings to the organisation’s management team.

“I didn’t hold back,” Associate Professor Jones, from the Faculty of Business, said of what he presented at that meeting. “Management were good at the practical up-skilling of volunteers – how to hold a fire hose, or how to analyse physical risk at a job site for example – but the interpersonal management skills of many of their leaders needed improvement.”

As well as potentially affecting the ability of these emergency organisations to adequately respond in times of flood or fire, this imbalance in management skills also affected the organisation’s ability to establish a more culturally and gender diverse workforce.

With natural crises demanding increased attention and response from emergency agencies, which puts emphasis on increasing the volunteer base, in actuality volunteer turnover rates are increasing with some agencies recording 27 per cent turnover. It was clear changes were needed, and the reasons for this high turnover had to be addressed. 

The initial project, funded by the UOW’s interdisciplinary research initiative Global Challenges, to support improving volunteer retention within the NSW SES, was followed by a further $384,000 grant  from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC to develop a program for the retention and engagement of volunteers across all types of emergency service agencies.

One of the programs that was developed with academic colleagues across the university specialising in leadership, was the Inspire Retain Engage (IRE) program, which draws on the three pillars of self-determination theory: people need to feel competent; that they need a sense of belonging or relatedness; and they need to feel a sense of autonomy. These are the basic psychological needs that, when addressed, motivate people.

In the IRE training program, leaders are given tools and strategies for meeting these personal needs in volunteers, and are supported in applying these approaches back in their units and brigades.

A number of Australian emergency services organisations have either trained, or intend to train leaders, using IRE resources. The program is now the basis of a soon to be introduced Graduate Diploma in Emergency Management at UOW.

The basis of the IRE project  somewhat reflects Associate Professor Jones’ transition from an electronics engineer who “only saw things in black and white” to an academic who now advises and provides training for leaders to recognise the importance of shades of grey in inspiring and leading a team.

His career turned to academia after he began his own business and realised the need to expand his training across business management – in 2000, he commenced a Bachelor of Commerce at UOW and a PhD followed. His interest in the motivation and commitment of an organisation’s workforce was piqued during a visit to a film set for a South Korean infomercial during his PhD. 

“I became interested in what motivated the crew on that set – the grips, riggers and runners for example. I mean I arrived early in the morning, they were there even earlier. They were still working late in the day – after the actors, the directors had left. And they did this for very little, or even no pay.

“So there were clearly factors other than money at play: these included boasting rights to their friends, mingling with the stars and working their way up to more prestigious jobs, like a feature film set.”

Similarly, volunteers are motivated by factors other than money, and it takes nuanced leadership to ensure the intrinsic reasons driving a volunteer are fulfilled. These interpersonal principles are the basis of the IRE training program.

Having maintained an interest in technology from his former career in electronics engineering, Associate Professor Jones is now looking to blend his expertise in the elements that motivate people to work, with persuasive technology.

“I’m interested in how persuasive technologies can be applied to behavioural change in a broader sense – it’s widely applied in the health and fitness area, where wearable technologies, like smart watches can tell us our heart rate, how many steps we’ve taken each day and our sleep pattern. 

“What if these technologies could also prompt and assist you – as a manager in a volunteer organisation, for example – to use the principles of self-determination theory in meetings with volunteers? 

“Looking down at your device, you’re reminded to use cultural and or gender appropriate language; to provide positive feedback based on specific team building activities; to acknowledge individual strengths in meetings.

“The potential is huge, and currently, technological developments are outpacing scholarship in this area.”


Faculty of Business: Associate Professor Michael Jones, Dr Yoke Berry, Viven Forner
Faculty of Engineering and IT: Dr Senevi Kirindena
Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health: Associate Professor Dominique Parrish
Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts: Dr Joakim Eidenfalk
NSW SES: Manager of Human Services, Mr David Rae (who is now UOW’s Workforce Diversity Project Officer)

Learn more: www.uowblogs.com/evp/leadership/